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How does severe parental conflict affect children?

It can be difficult for children to see their parents arguing, as it can make them feel anxious and sad. Children have a great ability to spot conflict and may shout “stop arguing!” even if we adults think we’re just “discussing” and our voices just have a slightly different tone. So what exactly counts as “arguing” between parents and how does it affect children when we adults are constantly in conflict with one another?

Child psychologist Malin Bergström fills us in!

When the word “conflict” is mentioned, many people think of verbal disputes with raised voices and perhaps some swear words. It is one type of conflict. For children, conflict between parents is not a major source of concern if the parents resolve the conflict and become reconciled. However, children instinctively react to emotional impulses and therefore need the support of adults to manage the stress that arises from conflict. They also need help interpreting their feelings and putting them into context. So it is very important how conflicts appear and whether we adults manage to resolve them or not.

What is a conflict?

Parents’ arguments, or conflicts, don’t always have to be open war. They can also be about:

  • Lack of trust.
  • Negative interpretations and misunderstanding each other without clearing things up to understand better.
  • When one parent is constantly on the defensive and assumes the other parent is malicious or has a bad idea or intention.
  • When one parent instinctively takes a stance against the other parent regardless of what the other parent says or does.
  • When one parent uses toxic or demeaning words in conversations with the other parent.
  • If one parent is constantly indicating that the other parent is “wrong” in their parenting or not good enough in other ways.
  • When one parent does not respond to conversations or gives the “silent treatment” as a strong punishment, either in normal conversations or in digital communication such as SMS or email.
  • Not honoring agreements such as consistently being late or not showing up at all.

Over time, this can lead to a decrease in trust between parents, resulting in more conflicts and full-blown arguments that can’t be resolved.

When children are dragged into conflicts

Parents sometimes become so focused on the conflict with their co-parent that they actively or passively drag their children into the conflict. This can be done, for example:

  • When a parent speaks negatively about the other parent in front of their child or other people, they are not managing the communication with the other parent themselves, but are instead dumping the responsibility of communication onto the child.
  • A parent who doesn’t say hello or greet the other parent in front of the child, and by silence creating bad athmosphere
  • A parent is interrogating the child about the coparents’ life and wellbeing to gain control
  • A parent who blame the child if showing care or love for the other parent

How does conflicts affect children?

It can be tough for children when their parents are constantly in conflict. Arguments lock energy into the parental relationship and leave children feeling alone. We must ensure their basic sense of security, and when they worry about our wellbeing and safety, it has the same impact on them as if they were threatened or affected themselves. Children take responsibility for how it is between their parents and try in various ways to calm or avoid conflicts. To cope with this, children sometimes develop various strategies.

“We never argue in front of the children – then it can’t be that bad”

It is a common misconception that children take more harm from open conflict than silent permafrost. However, children can sense and adapt to moods regardless of whether they contain passive or active aggression. It is also true that all children are affected by conflict, regardless of age. Babies and toddlers perceive the moods and emotions in their environment and are especially vulnerable because they are so dependent on us parents. Schoolchildren and teenagers also suffer from conflict and can take on roles, responsibilities, and strategies that are negative for their well-being and development. Perhaps they develop a vigilance to protect themselves from anger. Or they might run away from home and end up in situations that are not good for them. Encourage your children to talk to you about their feelings and worries, and reassure them that you are there to help.

Children’s reactions to their parents’ conflicts

Parents’ prolonged conflicts can also provide children with a negative image of relationships and conflict resolution. Children’s own aggression increases from growing up with a lot of arguing. Anger can be masked anxiety or a way to take the pattern home from home into other relationships. To not exacerbate the negative atmosphere at home, the child can also take out their anger in school or on friends instead of the parents. This makes life even more difficult. Maybe there isn’t any place or relationship that is protected from conflict. Naturally, this affects self-image and self-esteem negatively. Conflicts create stress and anxiety, which affects concentration and one’s own stress management, and then both friend relationships and schoolwork can suffer. Learning inadequate conflict management as a child can also result in difficulties standing up for oneself and creating secure and stable relationships with partners, friends, and other adults later in life.


It is important to protect children from constant arguing between parents. This applies whether it is loud arguments or “permafrost conflicts” with persistent silence or bad atmosphere in the communication between the parents. If conflicts arise, children need to see and learn that the conflict can be resolved and that everything is fine afterwards. Encourage your children that even though they may feel scared during the argument, it will all work out in the end.

Parents can protect their children by not allowing situations that lead to constant conflicts, for example by seeking help from a couples counselor or by separating.

Read more:

About what you can do to quell arguments between parents here.

BRIS: Children’s emotions, thoughts and experiences of divorces –

Elisabeth Scholander