Reducing Parental Conflict


What is parental conflict? Conflict and arguments between parents and within families is normal. However, conflict between parents can start to harm children’s outcomes if it becomes destructive.  Destructive parental conflict is frequent, intense, and poorly resolved. It can happen even if parents are no longer in a relationship together but are still co-parenting.

Latest research shows:

  • parental conflict is a normal part of relationships however, there is a growing body of evidence showing that Parental Conflict that is frequent, intense and poorly resolved puts children's mental health and long-term outcomes at risk.
  • workless families are 3 times more likely to experience parental conflict, as are families with parental mental ill health.
  • parental conflict costs the public sector around 46 billion a year.
  • parental Conflict can escalate to become domestic abuse.
  • current parenting programmes that focus on the parent child relationship are not effective in reducing Parental Conflict.
  • parental conflict often increases at transition points or points of change in a family – having a new baby is one of the stressors that can lead to destructive parental conflict. 
  • parenting by fathers is more adversely affected; as following parental conflict they often withdraw and are less likely to be reached by support services.

Starting a conversation about parental conflict: By having conversations about relationships, professionals are better placed to identify both destructive parental conflict and domestic abuse.

A good way to start conversations about relationships with parents you are working with is to ask 3 key questions:

  1. How frequently are you arguing with your partner or co-parent – daily, weekly, monthly?  (frequency)
  2. Do you keep arguing about the same things or different things, and are arguments resolved well or not well? (poor resolution)
  3. Are your arguments intense, leaving feelings of high emotion - yes or no? (intensity)

How does parental conflict harm a child’s outcome?  It is estimated that across England more than 11% of children and young people live in homes where parental conflict exists between their parents or separated parents.  Research has found that exposure to destructive parental conflict is associated with a wide range of problems for children and young people and this can include:

  • poorer academic outcomes
  • negative peer relationships and difficulties with their friendships
  • substance misuse as young people or later on in life
  • poor future relationship chances, more arguments, separations and divorce in their own relationship when they are adults,
  • low employability
  • more likely to be violent or have domestic violent relationships.
  • mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression
  • conduct disorder, poor attachment, risk-taking behaviours and even suicide in childhood or later in life.

What’s the difference between parental conflict and domestic abuse? Parental conflict and domestic abuse are two separate things. Sometimes destructive parental conflict can develop into domestic abuse, but this is not always the case. 

Signs of domestic abuse include:

  • one party attempts to hold all the power and control
  • the victim may be afraid
  • the perpetrator might have used physical violence
  • the abuse will likely have happened more than once, there may be patterns in the abuse or triggers in the abuse (such as alcohol)

What can we do as professionals?

We should:

  • always have conversations about relationships with parents and co-parents, even if they are separated.
  • always consider the impact of the parental conflict on the child or young person.
  • start to include information about parental relationships in your assessments. Even if you don’t think it's domestic abuse, ask yourself - is this destructive parental conflict?
  • consider undertaking training on reducing parental conflict
  • look over the parental conflict handbook for tools and strategies to use with parents