How Parents Fighting Affects Children's Mental Health

Fighting affects your kids in many ways.
 PeopleImages / DigitalVision / Getty Images 

No matter how healthy a couple’s relationship is, there’s bound to be a few squabbles here and there. And a few occasional disagreements usually aren’t a big deal.

Mature conversations, keeping it generally out of the kids’ view, and refusing to name-call all show a child how to deal with disagreements in a healthy manner.

But more serious conflict definitely takes a toll on kids. In fact, studies show parents fighting affects children’s mental health in several ways. Physical altercations, insults, and tactics such as “the silent treatment,” will likely do some emotional damage to a child in the long run.

Why Parents Fighting Is a Problem

There’s research to suggest that a child as young as 6 months old can be negatively affected by harsh parental arguments. But it’s not just young kids who are affected by parents fighting—other studies show young adults, up to age 19, can be sensitive to conflicts in their parents’ marriage.

It goes to show that children of all ages, from near-infancy through early adulthood, are impacted by how their parents choose to handle their differences.

Researchers believe high-conflict marriages take a toll on a child’s mental health for several reasons:

  • Kids are emotionally insecure. Fighting undermines kids’ sense of security about the stability of the family. Children exposed to a lot of fighting may worry about divorce or wonder when one parent’s silent treatment is going to end. It can make it difficult for them to have a sense of normalcy in the family since fights may be unpredictable.
  • The parent-child relationship may be affected. High-conflict situations are stressful for parents too. And a stressed out parent might not spend a lot of time with kids. In addition, the quality of the relationship may be affected as it may be difficult for parents to show warmth and affection when they’re angry and upset with the other parent.
  • Fighting creates a stressful environment. Overhearing frequent or intense fighting is stressful for kids. Stress can take a toll on their physical and psychological well-being and interfere with normal, healthy development.

Long-Term Mental Health Effects

In 2012, a study was published in the journal Child Development that looked at the effect of parental conflict on children from kindergarten through seventh grade. They were part of 235 middle-class families in the Midwest and Northeast United States with an average income between $40,000 and $60,000.

When their children were in kindergarten, the parents were asked about how much conflict they experienced in their marriage. They were also asked to talk about a difficult topic, such as finances, and researchers looked at how critical the partners were of one another.

Seven years later, researchers followed up with the families. Both the kids and the parents were asked about fighting in the parents’ marriage and emotional and behavioral health of the kids.

Kindergarteners who had parents who fought meanly and frequently were more likely to experience depression, anxiety and behavioral issues by the time they reached seventh grade.

Those aren’t the only issues kids are likely to face when their parents fight often. Here are the findings other studies have found when examining the effects parental fighting can have on kids:

  • Decreased cognitive performance – A 2013 study published in Child Development found that the stress associated with living in a high-conflict home may impair a child’s cognitive performance. Researchers found that when parents fought often, kids had more difficulty regulating their attention and emotions. Their ability to rapidly solve problems and quickly see patterns in new information was also compromised.
  • Increased relationship problems – Being exposed to parents fighting increases the chances that kids will treat others with hostility. It’s common your kids will begin solving sibling squabbles with the same tactics they’ve witnessed you using. And they may struggle to maintain healthy relationships when they’re older too if they’ve grown accustomed to family discord.
  • Higher rates of behavior problems – Parental conflict has been linked to increased aggression, delinquency, and conduct problems in children. Additionally, children are more likely to have social problems and increased difficulty adjusting to school.
  • Increased risk of eating disorders – Several studies have linked eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, to high parental discord.
  • Higher rates of adolescent substance abuse – Researchers have found that living in a home with high levels of conflict increases the odds of smoking, binge drinking, and marijuana use, relative to a low conflict married-parent family.
  • Physical effects – A child might even have physical effects from the fighting, such as sleep problems, stomach aches or headaches.
  • Higher risk of academic problems  Other studies have found that living in a high conflict family increases the odds of dropping out of high school and getting poor grades.
  • A more negative outlook on life  Children who are raised in high-conflict homes are more likely to have negative views of their family relationships. They are also more likely to view themselves in a negative way. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that children exposed to parental fighting are also more likely to have low self-esteem.

    When Does Fighting Become Problematic?

    No matter the age of your children or whether you’re seeing effects of marital strife, take a close look at how you argue. Just because your fights don’t get physical doesn’t mean they aren’t harmful to your kids.

    Destructive disagreement tactics that could have a negative impact on children include:

    • Name-calling
    • Insults
    • Threats of abandonment (such as threatening to leave the house or divorce)
    • Any form of physical aggression (including throwing things or punching things in anger)
    • Walking out or withdrawing from the argument
    • Capitulation (giving into the other parent when there’s not really a solution)

    So while you might think walking away from an argument and giving your partner the silent treatment for three days isn’t a big deal—it’s a big deal to your kids. Your kids see how you handle disagreements and they learn problem-solving skills, emotion regulation skills, and conflict resolution skills from you.

    It’s also important to think about the message that you’re sending to your kids about loving relationships. If you and your partner treat each other with disrespect, your kids will grow up thinking that it’s OK to do the same—and perhaps they’ll believe it’s OK to let others treat them poorly too.

    Diminishing the Effects of Marital Discord

    Sometimes, a disagreement gets out of hand. One person says something they don’t mean, another parent doesn’t realize that their children are listening on the other side of the wall.

    A spat or two doesn’t mean you’ve irreparably harmed your child. However, you might want to take a few steps to lessen the effects of what they saw and heard. If your disagreement grows disrespectful, you might take these steps to address the situation with your kids:

    • Discuss the fight. Although you don’t have to get into specifics about what you and your spouse were disagreeing about, hold a family meeting to say something like, “Daddy and I had an argument the other night that got out of hand. We didn’t have the same opinion on something that was important to both of us, but it was wrong for us to fight like that.”
    • Reassure the children that it was just an argument and not indicative of bigger problems. Reassure them that you still love each other and that you’re not going to get divorced (assuming, of course, that it’s a true statement).
    • Finish it up by making sure the children understand that you’re still a strong family. Explain that arguments happen sometimes and people can lose their tempers. However, you all love each other, despite your disagreements.

    If you believe that your fights with your spouse or partner are harming your child’s mental well-being, consider seeing a therapist. A therapist can determine whether one of you could benefit from individual therapy to learn skills, like anger management or emotion regulation, or whether you should attend couples counseling to work on your relationship together.

    Are Kids Better Off in Two-Parent Families?

    Kids usually do best in two-parent families. But, it’s important for parents to get along. If there’s a lot of fighting, kids may fare better if their parents separated.

    Many parents wonder whether they are better off staying together for the sake of the kids or just getting divorced. It’s clear that divorce can take a psychological toll on kids.

    In addition, kids who grow up with single parents often experience other problems—like economic issues—and they may not do as well as kids who grow up in two-parent families. And clearly, remarriage and living in a blended family can be complicated for kids too.

    But, living in a high-conflict home is likely to be equally as stressful—or perhaps even more stressful for kids—than if their parents got divorced. When parents get along during and after a divorce, kids usually don’t experience long-lasting emotional scars.

    So if you find yourself in a high-conflict relationship, staying together for the kids might not do your children any favors. It’s important to seek help to reduce the conflict or make changes to the relationship so that your kids can grow up happier and healthier.

    View Article Sources