The Impact Of Disagreement And Conflicts On Children

"If my parents canít agree, then I guess I am free to believe and do what ever I want."

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D, Clinical, Medical & Family Psychology
Phone: 541 388-5660


Children not only learn from what they do, but they also learn from what they see their parents doing. Realizing this can be important because many parents express their conflicts and disagreements in front of their children. Consider the following before you disagree, argue or start a conflict in front of your children.

Children who are fortunate enough to have two parents will need and love both parents. The emotional bonds formed between parents and children cause children to notice and adopt the values, attitudes and behavior of their parents. Children trust, imitate and try to pay attention to the people they bond with. But unlike adults, children tend to absorb the perspective of both parents directly. They do so with little hesitation and without experience.

Younger children are more likely than older children to "take in" the perspectives of both parents. When parents express their conflicts, the psychological impact on children can produce uncertainty, emotional instability, erratic thinking and hyperactivity. While many children are not affected by mild disagreements, some children are more sensitive and prone to act on the basis of confused feelings. How do children cope with conflicted parental views of what is right or wrong? The answer is, "They donít do it very well." Uncertainty and emotionality is the result and that leads to erratic and volatile behavior.

The impact of disagreements and conflicts will vary as children get older. For the most part, children begin to decide what to believe when they are about eight years old. Some children take a little longer to make these choice. But what many parents donít realize is that children will begin to ignore their parents wishes, values and attitudes when their parents argue and express their conflicts in their presence. Children tend to think, "If my parents canít agree, then I guess Iím free to believe and do what ever I want." Both parents lose credibility when they argue in front of children.

Disagreements and conflicts can lead to even more problems. For instance, if one parent ends up losing the argument, then a child may end up taking sides with one parent over the other. Children can develop problems when they end up valuing the parent who simply gives them what they want. The notion of right and wrong can disappear when children focus on getting what you want and not what they need. Even though it might feel good to be the favorite parent when you give your child what they want, it doesnít help your child in the long run.

Well-researched areas in health care describe the impact of angry, aggressive and violent behavior on the human body. The resulting stress creates high levels of agitation and ultimately it can compromise a childís health. Long or frequent exposures to arguments and conflict can "program" or "condition" children with perpetual anxiety, depressive response tendencies and a poor tolerance of frustration. The personality of some these children will become "cranky", easily frustrated and irritable.

Imitation of parental behavior is the final and most frustrating consequence of parent conflicts and disagreements. Children not only imitate their parentís behavior, but they tend to engage in competitive escalation. They try to out do their parents. In this way, children  learn to express their self with a similar tone, volume, pitch and rate. This explains why so many children end up acting like the very parent they have conflicts with.

What Helps?

To answer the question, "What helps?", we need to consider what triggers disagreement and conflicts. The single biggest cause of conflict and disagreement between parents is alcohol. Parents who try to discuss parenting issues and problems under the influence of alcohol are usually unskillful, impulsive, emotional and reactive. Even a minor amount of alcohol can create problems. The second biggest cause of conflicts and disagreements is the failure of parents to discuss their approach to parenting before the need arises. Very few parents discuss how to handle problems until they are facing a problem. A proactive approach to parenting is far more effective than a reactive response to problems. The third trigger involves past experiences in which parents react to each other and to their children based on what happened in their respective pasts rather than what "is" happening in the moment. Painful memories and fears can drive parents to over react and under react. Young children have a hard time understanding reality when a parent lives in the past. A parents behavior and values should fit reality.

The solutions for most parents are probably obvious at this point, but they are still worth mentioning. Why? Because following this advice is cheaper than paying for counseling, and it is easier to prevent a problem now than it is treat it later.

  • Donít discuss parenting issues in front of your child until both parents talk about it and resolve the issue in private. Avoid expressing your disapproval of the other parentís position or comments in front of a child.

  • Single parents should avoid sharing the power and responsibility for parenting with a non-family member unless the relationship is stable, acceptable and respected by your child.

  • Donít discipline or discuss a potentially volatile topic with your child if you have been drinking. Parenting and alcohol never mix.

  • Settle on a parenting approach that is good enough and you will both support. It does not help if you agree on an approach in to order avoid an argument and then donít support each other latter.

  • Decide what you expect from your children before they raise issues that would result in a parental disagreement or conflict.


Dr. Conner is a psychologist who completed a research and training fellowship in graduate medical education and health education. He provides training, evaluation and intervention services for adults, families and youth. Dr. Conner's practice includes clinical, medical and family psychology. He is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress, Emergency Crisis Intervention, Emergency School Response and Sports Psychology. This article is also available at www.CrisisCounseling.Com. Dr. Connerís practice is located in Bend Oregon and he can be reached at 541 388-5660, www.Education-Options.Com or .