Conflict is a normal part of everyday life and marriage, and watching some kinds of conflict can be beneficial to children. However, other types of conflict, such as what Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine calls “destructive conflict,” can have long-term adverse consequences for children.
Berkeley’s publication stresses that it is not a matter of if parents fight that affects children — it is how those parents resolve their conflicts. How you and your partner, or ex-partner, express and resolve conflict may have more impact on your children than you think.
Defining destructive conflict
According to the magazine, when conflict involves compromise, support and positivity, children actually benefit. Children who live in households where “constructive conflict” is the norm have better self-esteem, better social skills, increased emotional stability and more positive relationships with their parents. They also do better in school and have fewer psychological problems.
The opposite of constructive conflict is destructive conflict. Destructive conflict involves the following:
- Physical aggression, such as pushing and hitting
- Verbal aggression, such as name-calling, threats of divorce and insults
- Silent treatments, such as withdrawing, avoidance, sulking or walking out
- Capitulation — quitting fighting but without ever reaching a solution
Whereas constructive conflict leads to positive outcomes for children, destructive conflict can lead to adverse and long-term mental and emotional issues.
The adverse impact of destructive conflict
When parents repeatedly engage in hostile conflict toward one another, children become anxious, distraught, worried and hopeless. Many children in high-conflict households demonstrate aggressive behaviors at school and home and have difficulty developing healthy, balanced relationships. These children often develop sleep and health issues, such as insomnia, stomachaches and headaches. The stress of living in an emotionally damaging environment can interfere with their ability to pay attention in school, their relationships with other children and even their relationships with their siblings.
Several studies look into the long-term effects of destructive conflict between parents. One notable finding is that children who lived in homes with constantly arguing parents had higher than average cortisol levels compared to children who lived in peaceful homes. As a result, these children played less, slept poorly and were constantly tired and sick.
A second noteworthy finding is that children who lived in high-conflict homes as kindergartners had difficulty adjusting to new situations as middle schoolers. A prolonged analysis shows that those problems persisted into young adulthood.
A third and final finding worth noting is that children who grew up in negative family environments went on to develop emotional issues, social disorders and health problems as adults. Moreover, those adults were at higher risk of depression, substance dependency, emotional reactivity and loneliness than adults who grew up in stable home environments.