Many families have their arguments but when they escalate to cause family conflicts it can have long-term effects on children and their behaviour.
A family conflict is “the active opposition between family members” and can come in a variety of forms: verbal, physical, financial and psychological.
For example, a verbal family conflict could take the form of a heated disagreement with raised voices sometimes known as a ‘shouting match’.
A physical conflict might involve one parent hitting another or restraining them during a disagreement.
Financial and psychological conflicts often appear more subtle at first but they are no less serious than verbal or physical conflict.
A financial conflict might involve restricting a person’s access to shared money or spending large amounts without discussion.
Psychological conflict is also known as interpersonal conflict and often arises when one or more people are trying to make difficult decisions. In a parental or family setting, an example of psychological conflict would be someone that dislikes a relationship intensely but doesn’t feel they can leave it for fear of not being able to support themselves financially alone. This can result in conflict.
Families must learn why they are fighting and find a resolution because the long-term effects of family and parental conflicts on children are profound. A child’s behaviour can often become unhealthy and risky and children living through family conflict often find it hard to develop interpersonal relationships.
Learning how to resolve conflicts quickly and effectively can help families learn how to prevent their arguments from turning into bigger conflicts and provide a stable and caring environment for their children.
Why do Families Have Conflicts (fight)?
Families will fight over many things for different reasons. The most common reasons why families fight are due to money, communication failure, parenting issues, siblings, and in-laws as well as extended families.
Let’s take a look at each reason why families fight.
Family conflicts that are due to money problems can happen in any family. Financial problems can be due to parents disagreeing with how much money is spent (i.e. one parent is a saver and the other parent is a spender), having too many expenses and not enough income, living on a very tight budget (i.e. this could limit being able to pay for basic needs as well as unique items or activities for children), or having a family member who is unemployed.
When family members are unable to:
- Express their needs, wants or feelings clearly,
- Be heard by others. For example, selective listening (only listening when the person is interested in the topic) and passive listening (looking at the speaker but not hearing what that person is saying),
- Be understood. Being misunderstood is when one persons says something and the listener hears another,
- Carry out things the way they would like to,
Communication failure leads to fear, anger and frustration which contributes to conflict.
Parenting issues can occur when parents have:
- Different parenting methods,
- Inconsistent rules and consequences. For example, one parent may be more strict than the other parent. One parent may tell the child they are grounded for breaking a rule and the other parent either reduces the amount of time or eliminates it completely.
- Miscommunication between them (i.e. not on the same page),
- Different views on the situation because the child has told different versions to each parent. For example, when the child goes up to one parent and asks them if it is okay to get something and they are told no, so they go to the other parent and let them know they have been allowed to do that activity.
- Research also shows that contexts of high child-related challenges (e.g.disruptive child behaviours associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; Autism Spectrum Disorder) put parents at risk for frequent, intense, and unresolved couple conflict (Hartley, et al, 2017).
When families have multiple children, conflicts can arise between siblings.
These conflicts can be attributed to disagreements among siblings having to share a small space (e.g., a family of six has two boys and two girls and due to lack of space the boys would need to share a bedroom and the two girls would need to share a bedroom), having a sibling with a disability and/or health issue, or having a different personality.
In-laws and Extended Families
Many families will have interactions with their in-laws and extended family members.
Conflicts can arise between families and their in-laws and extended family members when they have a lack of boundaries (i.e. extended family members and in-laws come to a family’s home unannounced often), differences in values and thoughts about how children should be raised, or when a family member feels caught in the middle of disagreements.
Long-Term Effects of Family Conflicts
Identifying the negative long-term effects of family conflicts on children can help motivate us to resolve those conflicts faster.
The effects on children are severe. Conflicts in families impact future relationships both in the family and out of it. Romantic relationships, friendships and even workplace relationships with colleagues are made more challenging.
But why? Children that have experienced conflict struggle with their communication, problem-solving and compromising. Deficiency in these key skills will impact the formation and maintenance of relationships.
Without good relationships the chances of participating in risky behaviours such as self-medicating and drug usage are increased.
There are other issues with poorly formed relationships too. This could simply be issues with trusting others.
Overall, experience family or parental conflict as a child can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety which are exacerbated when strong family relationships and friendships are not present.
For many families, family conflicts are generational.
When children are brought up in homes where family conflicts happen regularly, they learn the same behaviors through observation of the behvaiours modeled to them by parents.
Children experiencing family conflict are much more likely to have family conflict again if they raise their own families.
It is really important, therefore, to resolve these conflicts to stop the cycle.
How to Resolve Family Conflicts
Let’s learn how to resolve family and parental conflicts.
There are four key ways to approach resolution. These are emotional-self awareness, open communication, setting boundaries and family counseling.
Each family is different and what works for one family may not work for another family so experiment, find what works for you and don’t be beat if the answer doesn’t come right away. This is okay.
Let’s explore the four ways families can resolve their conflicts in more detail:
Emotional-self awareness is about learning to identify your feelings, how they affect you and how to express your feelings.
As you get better at this you can learn to take control by regulating your feelings. This is often done by taking deep breaths and using a neutral voice tone and body language.
Neutral body language means making a conscious effort to stand or sit in an open way that does not signal conflict. The best example of this is crossing your arms. Crossing your arms signals you are stressed and uncomfortable with what’s being said.
Try to sit in an open, relaxed way and use calm comforting words that are respectful.
Acknowledging other people’s concerns and thoughts is a powerful way to let someone know they are heard and respected and that you are open. Eye contact also helps.
When you are in control of your emotions, that is to say they are ‘regulated’, you can put negative, stressful thoughts aside and approach a discussion calmly with open body language and a respectful tone.
Open communication is when the speaker and listener understand each other.
Everyone in the discussion should be able to say what they need to say without feeling afraid of negative consequences.
It is also important that everyone has a chance to say what they need to say without being interrupted.
A great way to practice open communication is by being, or learning to be, empathetic.
Empathy is when you put yourself in someone else's shoes and try to imagine how they might be feeling. This will help you develop a better understanding of their perspective on the situation. It may change your perspective or help you find a compromise that works for everyone.
It’s really important to give everyone in the discussion a chance to share their perspective and how they are feeling. You can’t be fully empathetic until you’ve heard from the person you are trying to have empathy with.
Talking calmly, listening and responding in such a way that demonstrates you’ve heard someone is the best way to finding resolution.
Setting boundaries is important for all families.
Boundaries are limits that are placed both in and out of the home. For example, if you have in-laws that constantly drop by unannounced, it is okay to tell them that they need to call the day before or a couple of hours in advance to see whether or not it would be a good time to come over.
This way, families have a say when it is a good time for others to stop by. It also communicates to their in-laws that they are still welcome to visit them.
Having families set boundaries is a way to take care of your family emotionally and physically.
Family counselling is when your family seeks help from a trained professional.
This could be a therapist, a psychologist that focuses on families, or a member of the Clergy.
During family counseling, many family counselors or therapists will speak with family members individually first and then the family as a whole.
This will depend on the type of conflict that is happening. Family counseling provides a safe environment for all members of the family to share their experiences and concerns.
The safe space is also perfect for exploring resolutions together.
It may seem like a lot of work, but resolution can be found.
If your child or children is exhibiting challenging behaviours we have a variety of support tools available on this website.
Our range of online behaviour help courses provides a variety of opportunties to learn about behaviour but in particular, our emotional regulation course Guiding the Development of Emotional Regulation Skills would be very helpful.
When families realise that they are negatively affected by conflicts and want to find a way to resolve them, their children will benefit.
Their children will observe how to handle and resolve family conflicts in a healthy way. For many families, it could also help end the generational pattern of negative family conflicts.
Hartley, S.L., Papp, L.M., Mihaila, I., Bussanich, P.M., Goet, G. & Hickey, E.J. (2017). Couple Conflict in Parents of Children with versus without Autism: Self-Reported and Observed Findings. Journal of Child Family Studies, Aug;26(8):2152-2165.