Conflicts of interest


There can’t be many parents in the land who don’t have the odd argument in front of the children. Parents who are tired and over-subscribed can find it hard not to let off steam, but how does this affect the kids? And how can we achieve damage limitation?


writes Kate Hilpern


‘Oh no, you haven’t put the rubbish out...again!’ ‘Why is there

only juice on the table for the kids’ breakfast? Surely you realise they have to eat something!’


Most of us argue with our partners in the presence of little ears once in a while. It’s impossible to agree all the time. But parental conflict can damage children’s mental health and life chances, according to new research from the Early Intervention Foundation,

in collaboration with the University of Sussex. And that holds true whether parents are together or separated.


Parents embroiled in hostile and distressed relationships are typically more hostile and aggressive towards their children and less responsive to their needs, the research found. In turn, some children may become more aggressive and hostile themselves,

while others can develop low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.


As if that’s not enough, witnessing inter-parental conflict on an ongoing basis can reduce a child’s academic performance, limit the development of their social and emotional skills and even their ability to form positive relationships themselves.


‘Fighting in front of the kids affects them from the day they are born – and some might argue even before that because maternal anxiety can affect the unborn baby too,’ says psychologist Emma Citron.


Some studies have shown that blood pressure rises in infants when

parents argue within earshot. While babies and toddlers might not

understand the words, we know that they do tune into our tone and body language and pick up on antagonism.


By the time children are at school, feelings of insecurity and uncertainty can kick in whenever they hear their mum and dad arguing. ‘With 42 per cent of marriages now ending in divorce, most school-age children have at least one friend whose parents aren’t together, so the threat of you splitting up can also be on their radar,’ says Emma Citron.


‘Nobody is suggesting you should never disagree – that’s unrealistic – but it’s how you do it that’s critical,’ she adds. ‘Some disagreements are respectful and fairly amicable – a difference in opinion about politics, for example. But others get nasty and personal and can include swear words and name calling. This is where it gets dangerous because we know that children of any age tend to self blame. They take on inappropriate self-responsibility, which is emotionally burdensome and can have a long term impact.’




Laura lives with husband Chris and their two children, aged one and three, in Merseyside


‘Chris and I have always had quick tempers and a volatile relationship. Rather than seeing this as negative, I used to think it was a good thing. Unlike couples who either hold grudges, or seem to feel constantly irritated by each other, I would pride myself on the fact that we could get it all out in the open with a quick row and then move on.


And how boring never to row – the making up is the best bit! We are both passionate people and I’ve always thought a hot temper is the flip side of that.


But now that we have children, I want things to change. Our elder child hates it when we argue because our rows always involve shouting and strong accusations. She often complains of a tummy ache if we have cross words. Although there are no specific signs with the younger one, I do wonder how the rows are affecting her.


Things got bad a few months ago – I think because the tiredness and daily grind of parenting adds to stress levels. I decided to get some counselling to help with the arguments, and also to address some issues from my past that I wanted to work through.


It’s helped me realise why certain things wind me up and I’ve been given some cognitive behavioural therapy that I use as a kind of mental tool box to help me stop things escalating when I start to see red.


My partner is trying to curb his temper in his own way too and although we sometimes slip up, we’re much better than we used to be.’


Unresolved arguments are the worst, reveals the Early Intervention

Foundation research. This is backed up by a study from the University of Notre Dame which found that children who saw a staged conflict with resolution remained calm, whereas those who

were allowed to see just a portion of the argument – without the resolution – were negatively affected. These children shouted, got angry or hit a pillow.


But hold fire before the guilt sets in about having had a go at your

partner for not doing the laundry last week. Co-author of the parenting book Natureshock Po Bronson says he doesn’t avoid disputes with his wife in front of his kids. Instead, he uses such incidents as ‘teachable moments’ to show that even though they may disagree, both parents still love each other and are not about to divorce.


Observing quarrels, he believes, can teach children we’re not perfect, and show that it’s ok to tell someone if they upset you or made you angry, which can build confidence and assertiveness

skills. Arguments that are resolved can also teach youngsters valuable lessons about how to work things out reasonably. In the Notre Dame study, researchers found that when actors made efforts to problem solve, the children were not disturbed.


The problem is that you never really know how arguments are going to end up. Even if we know what we want to say and how we want to resolve the situation, there’s no way of guessing how the other person will react. ‘And when arguments escalate, even with the best will in the world, we’re normally led by our emotions rather than logic – and emotions are unpredictable,’ says

psychologist Dr Abigael San.


‘When we let ourselves become angry, we become totally selfish –

giving ourselves over to releasing all our negative emotions without a thought for anyone around us,’ says psychologist Linda Blair. ‘If we wanted to solve the problem rationally, we wouldn’t be arguing in the first place.


’ She believes that all arguing does is to teach children that their parents can’t control their emotions, or that they don’t care if their negativity upsets others around them. This can make children feel anxious and unimportant. It also sends a message to children that

it’s ok to be completely impulsive with your emotions, rather than exercising self-control and rationality.


That also goes for parents arguing with others within the family, such as their children, siblings or parents, says Linda Blair These arguments don’t carry the same emotional risks as parental rows. But the bottom line is that as parents we should be role models.



Rowing in the right way


It would be a very unusual family where the children never saw their parents rowing! When you feel something is brewing, try these tips:


Try to keep a lid on your anger, recommends Dr San. ‘Make a conscious effort to limit how much you raise your voice. If you can, stop the conversation and set time aside to discuss the issue when the children aren’t around.’


Recognise the physiological signals that you’re losing control – is your stomach churning? Are you only focusing on one negative thing irrationally? Take a deep breath, get a glass of water or walk out of the room and pick up the conversation when you’re feeling calmer.


Never assume your kids aren’t listening, advises Dr San. Even if they’re having their own conversation or appear to be immersed in play, the emotional cogs are turning. If they cover their ears, ask you to stop, or run out of the room, that’s a very clear signal to call a halt. But just because those things don’t happen doesn’t mean they’re not being affected.


Remember that keeping schtum is different from a stony silence, explains Dr San. ‘A stony silence can be every bit as toxic as a row. I’ve seen people coming into therapy who have learned to keep all their feelings squashed inside even when they’re upset because that’s all they ever saw their parents do – then one day it all explodes.’


The biggest no-no is name-calling says Emma Citron who suggests that if you are angry, you should try to focus on the behaviour, not the person. ‘Address one topic at a time and avoid words like “always” and “never” which are most likely unfair and will certainly antagonise. Definitely don’t try to win an argument.’


Make time as a couple to regularly communicate about things before they escalate. Above all, make sure that if you do row, your child knows at the end: ‘It’s ok. Mummy and Daddy love each other very much and we’ve worked this out.’

















March/April 2018

All information is correct at time of publishing