Parental conflict


There are different kinds of conflict in relationships. Not all conflict is damaging, but it’s important to remember that the way it is displayed, how often it happens and how conflict is dealt with can all have a negative impact on children.

Families come in all shapes and sizes, and parental conflict can occur in all types of families: between biological parents, step parents, foster and adoptive parents, parents and grandparents and separated and divorced parents to name just a few.

On this page, we’ll cover: 

A key point is that parental conflict is very different to domestic abuse. No-one should ever make you feel threatened or unsafe; if this is the case there are many organisations and services that are there to support you.

Follow the GOV.UK guidance to find out more, or call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free and confidential advice, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247.

What is parental conflict?

There are many forms of conflict in relationships and not all are bad. Harmful parental conflict is a pattern of damaging behaviour that can include:

  1. Shouting or aggressive arguments
  2. Not speaking to each other regularly or for long periods
  3. ​​​Being disrespectful
  4. Letting issues linger rather than sorting things out

What is most important is how we approach conflict. As adults, we are role models for our children so if we can remain calm and respectful whilst addressing any disagreements, it provides our children with important life skills for future interactions with others.

Impact of parental conflict on children

Children who experience positive and productive relationships are more likely to feel settled and have good social and emotional wellbeing.

Long-term parental conflict isn’t just unpleasant and stressful for the adults involved - it can also impact children in a variety of ways. According to research by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), it can have a negative impact on:

  • Self-esteem
  • Mental and physical health
  • Behaviour
  • Academic achievements
  • Future relationships with others

Research suggests long-term parental conflict may also affect how we parent our children. Some children may experience some degree of hostility from their parent(s) or a decrease in quality time spent together. 

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Potential causes of parental conflict

There are many reasons why conflict may arise in relationships.

1. Parenting styles

Differences in parenting, and the influence from wider family members, can cause parental conflict. Our childhood experiences mean we all have personal ideas about how to parent our children and these won’t always be the same!

If you are trying to support siblings who fight and argue with each other, it can be very stressful. Children generally learn from adults in their families how to behave and interact with one another. Is there anything you could do differently to show your children how to manage disagreements positively? 

Sometimes changing how we respond as parents/carers can have a positive effect on the behaviour of others.

Family smiling around dining table as young girl feeds her mother

Family Links offers a range of resources to download and tips to try.

In addition, Barnardo’s services run a range of parenting courses which may be of interest to you. To find your nearest one, enter your postcode into our services finder and filter by ‘parenting programmes’.

2. Having a new baby

Whilst bringing a new person into the world brings much happiness and excitement, it may also create challenges for relationships. Baby’s addition to the family may mean changes to routine, to work, to friends, to income and so much more! The NHS website has guides for families with new additions that provide tips and tricks for navigating this time.

Local baby groups are a good way of meeting other parents and learning new things, even if it needs to be online or over text for the time being – why not check out your local services through your health visitor?

Remember, these challenges exist whenever you become a new parent, whether that is through having a baby, adopting or fostering, or taking on parental responsibilities for a step-child.

3. Financial concerns

Financial concerns can all cause worries about being able to pay the rent or bills or buy the basics you need, which can in turn lead to stress and conflict in relationships.

Whether it’s debt, overspending, job loss, buying a house or perhaps a drop in working hours that affects income, the Citizen’s Advice website can help with advice and guidance on financial matters.

4. Housing

Living somewhere where family members are unable to have their own space can be very challenging to relationships. In addition, issues around poor living conditions can also cause worry and stress. 

Most local authorities have a housing department who can offer support and advice about housing options and concerns.

The charity 'Shelter' can provide further information.

5. Health difficulties

Long-term or life-limiting illnesses, a new illness or poor mental health can cause worry and anxiety for those involved, and place a huge amount of stress on relationships as people try to navigate their own way through these challenges.

Mind offers information and support on mental health, and the British Heart Foundation shares advice on supporting someone with health problems.

6. Substance or alcohol misuse

Substance or alcohol misuse not only affects family income, but can also negatively impact the interaction between both partners and children. This can also put an enormous amount of stress on relationships.

For support on this, please see the NHS pages on alcohol support and getting help with drug addiction. The NHS also offers advice for the families of drug users.

How to reduce parental conflict 

There are many things we can do to reduce the amount of conflict in our relationships. 

Firstly, it’s useful to consider how we think about certain situations, how they make us feel and how our behaviour as a result affects those around us. For example, distancing ourselves from certain situations or ignoring others will not offer a solution to a problem.

Criticising others, being defensive or “having a go” will also mean you’re less likely to deal with conflict positively.

Couple holding hands while drinking coffee

Here are some things to try instead:

  • Try and spend more quality time together. This might be watching your favourite programme on TV with family members or having a regular date night with your partner. 
  • Choose the right time to address issues. Waiting for a quiet time in the evening may be better than during a busy school run. 
  • Be open to compromise. 
  • Listen to each other’s views without interrupting.
  • Make sure everyone has an opportunity to voice their view. Give the other person time to respond to what has been said, and most importantly, listen to what they’re saying. 
  • Communication really is key - celebrate things you agree on and use this in future discussions.

Children don’t come with a parenting manual, so an important part of shared parenting is discovering together what works best for you as a family. Celebrating what is going well and talking about what may need changing will help you communicate in an open and honest way.

This creates an environment where everyone’s views are heard and are equal within the relationship. 

Other resources

Relate has some additional advice about building and sustaining positive relationships and also offers relationship counselling. 

See it Differently has compiled clips showing different family conflict scenarios and how they can be handled more effectively.