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Kids Harmed When Parents Fight

Unresolved Parent Conflicts Mar Kids' Emotional Development

Bad Fights vs. Good Fights

"Everyone will have fights now and again that are pretty negative," Cummings says. "Children are not fragile this way. It is only when there is an accumulation of negative fights that the children lose confidence in the emotional security of the family."

The fights that hurt kids -- and parents -- may have some or all of these negative features:

  • Defensiveness
  • Personal insults
  • Verbal hostility
  • Nonverbal expressions of hostility
  • Stonewalling
  • Physical aggression. All experts tell WebMD that physical violence is enormously damaging to children's emotional well-being.

The fights that don't hurt kids -- and which may actually help them -- have many of these constructive features:

  • Problem solving
  • Compromise
  • Expressing positive feelings in the context of conflict
  • Making supportive statements
  • Verbal expressions of affection

What if parents can't help getting into a bad fight?

"One thing the parents could do is try to work toward a resolution, and let their child know about the resolution," Cummings says. "Even if the parents go behind closed doors and come out genuinely looking like they have resolved the conflict, the child will see it as resolved. And parents can explain to the child what happened."

The good news, Cahir says, is that even when children do suffer from parental conflict, much of the harm can be undone.

"Parents can get family or couples therapy to help them learn better ways to communicate," Cahir says. "And by doing so they are helping their children. Because the children learn from how the parents handle conflicts. If the parents can learn to control anger and not to blame the other, their behavior becomes a model the child can lean from."

This doesn't mean all fights are appropriate for children to witness, says Rebecca A. Jones, PhD, associate professor of clinical psychology at the Georgia School of Professional Psychology in Atlanta.

"I think it is really important that children be shielded from the really difficult fights that parents sometimes need to have," Jones tells WebMD. "They need to be shielded from conflicts that are too much for them to understand. If they do witness arguments, it is very important that they see their parents resolve those conflicts and compromise. Because that is how children learn that conflict is normal and healthy if resolved through communication."

What About Divorce?

Not all conflicts can be resolved. Sometimes parents find that they cannot continue with their relationship. Does this harm their children?

Jones, an expert in children of divorced parents, says kids do suffer when their parents' marriage breaks up. But it's even harder if parents stay together solely for the sake of the kids.

"There's been consistent evidence over the years that the process of divorce itself is hard on children," Jones says. "But even more important is the level of conflict between the parents. If children are experiencing a lot of fighting -- especially if the children are drawn into those fights -- that may be more harmful to their development than a divorce."

Cahir strongly agrees.

"If parents come to terms with the fact they are not happy with each other and cannot work it out, the children are better off if they divorce," Cahir says. "The bottom line is if the children see happy, content parents, they are better off. ... I have had many clients say, 'I wish my parents had gotten divorced earlier,' because kids know when parents aren't happy. They learn that early on."

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