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17th Aug 2018

Parenting battles: How to handle conflict in front of children

There are a couple of steps you can take.


Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship, and indeed can be a necessary part.

However, when a couple become parents, conflict can become more of an issue, as the responsibilities and worry of parenthood brings stress into the mix.

We asked Dr Maeve Hurley for her tips on resolving conflicts in a healthy way…

“Most parents will admit to arguing in front of the children occasionally, and many feel a sense of guilt that they have done so. However, witnessing conflict isn’t necessarily destructive to children, and parents should take heed that it can be good for children to see conflicts being resolved.

However, conflict has been categorised as destructive when it involves behaviours that evoke negative reactions in children. Conflict that involves verbal or physical aggression, silent treatment or intense arguments can be extremely distressing to little witnesses. When the arguments are about them, it can distress them even further. Research shows that children exposed to badly managed conflict are at risk of poorer physical and mental health, failing to reach their potential at school, sleeping difficulties and trouble getting on with peers.

The first step in managing conflict in front of kids is to be aware of the potential impact your arguments have on them. Couples can sometimes say things to each other in front of children that they would perhaps not say in front of friends or other family members, because they don’t see that their child is listening or understanding. It is important to remember that just because a child isn’t reacting, does not mean they are not affected.

Awareness of conflict can help you to manage it in a way that helps rather than harms children. It is okay to explain to your child that you have had a conflict and reassure them that it has been resolved.

There are a number of steps that parents can take to ensure that the way they manage conflict in front of children is appropriate and will minimise the impact felt by kids.

Start with these…

1. In an ideal world, if you and your partner have an issue that needs resolving, you would choose an appropriate time to air it, when neither of you are overly stressed or overwhelmed. While this can sometimes be difficult in the heat of the moment, it is very important that you do try to take the heat out of arguments. Try to recognise your anger before it comes to a head. Are you talking louder? Can you feel tension rising in your body? Take a break. Get a drink of water, leave the room, or take a short walk. It takes at least 20 minutes for the hormones aroused by conflict to settle, so that time out can help. Only resume the conversation when you feel calm again.

2. Start by explaining how you feel, without resorting to blame or criticism. Say what is upsetting you and try and pinpoint the exact issue, rather than blaming your partner for everything.

3. Avoid starting sentences with ‘you’ or ‘you always’, and focus instead on yourself and how you are feeling. Listen to their point of view, and try to find some common ground. Don’t be afraid to inject some humour and affection. And know when to stop and take the spotlight off conflict.

Dr Maeve Hurley, a former GP, is the Founder of Ag Éisteacht, a charity which supports frontline workers in the health and education industries in their communications and interactions with clients and patients.