How children feel when parents fight

Children (of all ages) who experience frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict and harshness between their parents suffer terribly. These children are also at risk for a number of negative psychological outcomes including depression, anxiety, aggression, hostility, and poor social skills.

Exposure to intense parental conflict is linked with chronic stress in children. High arousal levels may interfere with children’s capacity to figure out what is going on at an emotional level. Academic progress may be impaired as there is a link between stress and impaired thinking. Children may expend energy on maintaining their parents’ marriage, or protecting a parent’s feelings, at the expense of their own developmental tasks. The child experiences negative feelings (sadness, anxiety), holds negative thoughts (the world is unsafe, I am at fault, I have to be good), and develops negative models for family life (it’s normal for family members to control each other and hurt each other and not seek help). Behaviour problems and physical problems without a physical cause are often reported and regression to an earlier stage of development may occur. As conflict continues, the suffering of children tends to deepen.

Conflict between a child’s parents also disrupts the child’s relationships with both parents. The pathway by which conflict affects the child so profoundly may be that the conflict threatens the child’s survival and places in question whether their needs can actually be met by their parents. Basically, children need to feel that their parents are sufficiently focused on them so they are safe and cared for. Conflict indicates that parents are preoccupied with something else. This is experienced as confusing, frightening, and very sad by children.

The children I see in my practice who are in this situation eloquently and tearfully describe their intense suffering. Some of the worst scenarios are when children are caught in the trap of not being able to show their love for both of their parents because one parent may hold immense rage and distress about the other parent. Children may learn that one parent feels very negatively about the other parent. Children don’t need to be told this – they pick it up from facial expressions, tone of voice, and other nonverbal clues. To ensure that they don’t distress the first parent, the child may internalise and suppress this negativity within themselves as “I am bad…I am to blame”. There is great guilt and shame attached to these thoughts. Conflict between parents may be especially toxic if the conflict centres on the children themselves; their behaviour, or decisions about them such as custody, schools, management of behaviour, daily routines or health management.

Helping children make sense of their conflicting emotions may assist in these circumstances. However, living with ongoing conflict means that children’s suffering will continue. It is up to parents to address their feelings and seek help and support so that everyone can move on. As the Dalai Lama states, “Forgiveness is not about letting off the perpetrator of some wrong; it is about freeing the victim”. Children caught in the middle of parental conflict are victims – separated parents need to let each other go in order to free their children from harm.

Prue Fanselow-Brown is a clinical psychologist, practicing at the Child and Family Psychology Centre in Christchurch. You can learn more about Prue and her work at


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