The research around parental conflict

What do we know about the effect that conflict has on children?

Where children experience the break-up of their parents, if handled well, research shows that the child returns to levels of wellbeing that they experienced before the break within 2 years. However, when conflict between parents/carers is destructive in terms of its frequency, intensity and poor resolution, it can have a significant impact on the child, irrespective of their age.

What the evidence says

Children as young as six-months old show distress such as an increased heart rate in response to hostile parental exchanges.

Children up to the age of five years show distress by crying, acting out, freezing, withdrawing from conflict, or attempting to intervene.

Inter-parental conflict has also been associated with behavioural problems, cognitive ability, and physical health (eg accidents/illness) in children as young as 2 years old, and with impaired social functioning
(eg increased conflict with peers) during primary school.

Furthermore, the effects of inter-parental conflict can impact on later child outcomes into adolescence and adulthood, including mental health difficulties (eg aggression, anti-social behaviour, depression, and anxiety), academic attainment and employability, and future relationship stability.

Those who experience family breakdown when aged 18 or younger, are likely to :

  • experience homelessness
  • be in trouble with the police or spend time in prison
  • experience educational underachievement
  • experience not being with the other parent of their child/ren
  • experience alcoholism
  • experience teen pregnancy
  • experience mental health issues
  • experience debt
  • experience being on benefits
  • develop behavioural problems

This can have a knock on effect later on in life and cause problems with adult relationships, pshychological wellbeing and employment.

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80% of children of separated parents live exclusively or mainly with their mothers.

The importance of Dad
  • Text link image What we know
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    Where there has been relationship breakdown we now that both parent’s matter, but often dad’s input is not valued as much as it should be. The research tells us that 76% of male prisoners had an absent father (Prison Reform Trust) and three quarters (74%) of British adults whose parents never lived together when they were growing up say they rarely/never saw their father during their childhood, compared to just 1% of the same group who say they rarely/never saw their mother. (Centre for Social Justice March 2019)

    It is important for dads to play an active role in a child’s upbringing unless they are a proven risk to the child’s safety. But when a relationship breaks down it’s not just the mother/father relationship that can begin to be seen as toxic, the mother may decide that a relationship with the father is also going to be toxic for the child. This is not supported by the evidence. We know that if the adult to adult relationship is unhealthy it doesn’t mean the father to child relationship will be unhealthy.

    Practitioners need to encourage a parent who is gate-keeping to recognise that distance with the other parent may be what is good for them but it is not what is best for the child. Read more here

  • Reseach supports that the father or male carer has a significant impact on

    Early development
    Later development
    Personal & family development

Further Resources