Little Jugs have Big Ears: The impact on children of conflicts between their parents


Children are always listening to, watching and modelling their parents’ behaviour–always! You might think that they are absorbed in that television programme or in colouring in their new activity book, but your words and actions are still very much on their radar. It is for this reason that the manner in which parents handle conflict between themselves is so critical.

Conflicts are an inevitable part of relationships. Since the beginning of time, no two people have been known to consistently agree with each other–even Adam and Eve had an argument in the Garden of Eden! The relationship between Mom & Dad will also be assailed with its fair share of conflict. Mom & Dad have to relate to each other as individuals in an intimate relationship, as well as two halves of the parenting unit. They can either handle these conflicts destructively or constructively. When destructive conflicts occur between parents, they can have a significant harmful impact on children as young as infancy.


Destructive conflicts typically involve name-calling, cursing, physical aggression, sulking, crying, and/or “the silent treatment”. When children live in households where destructive conflicts occur, they are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, behavioural problems, and have trouble sleeping. Further, the children may also experience long-term attention and academic problems. In the past, it was believed that children in such households would “get used to it,” but in fact researchers have now determined that over time, children become more sensitive to their parents’ discord.


Alternatively, conflicts can be constructive. In constructive conflicts, parents work toward an acceptable outcome while displaying mutual understanding and respect for each other’s interests and goals. Children who witness such conflicts are more likely to have positive interactions with peers and become more psychologically healthy over time. Through their parents’ constructive conflicts, children learn how to handle disagreements and respect the opinions of others. Additionally, improvements are often noted in parents’ relationship satisfaction, as well as their overall problem-solving and parenting skills.


Parents can ensure their conflicts are constructive instead of destructive by:


  • Being respectful in communication with their partner. Refraining from physical aggression or insults.
  • Taking some time to calm down if unable to keep it together. Letting their partner know a time-out is needed and that the conversation will be revisited keeps the lines of communication open.
  • Using “I” instead of “You” statements. This reduces the likelihood of the partner becoming defensive (e.g. “I feel ignored by you” versus “You are never listening to me”).
  • Not generalizing (i.e., using “never” and “always” such as in the above example).
  • Not interrupting while their partner is speaking.
  • Discussing their expectations for the relationship in specific terms (e.g. “I would like it if you washed the dishes after dinner while I get the children ready for bed”).
  • Communicating about their expectations for intimacy in the relationship.
  • Working towards resolution by determining what each partner is willing to contribute to alleviate the problem at hand. Using compromise and negotiation.


If parents are unable to constructively handle their conflicts, they should consider consulting with a relationship counsellor or conflict resolution practitioner.


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