‘Let’s talk about conflict’ is a seven-part video series, each of 5-10 minutes duration, with corresponding handouts. It was written by two Professors of Developmental Psychology: Jennifer McIntosh and Craig Olsson from the Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED), Deakin University, and was produced by Relationships Australia South Australia.
The series explores how parental relationships affect children. Designed for use by parents, whether they live together or are separated, it is a practical tool to support them to reduce the impact of their conflict on their children’s emotional and social development. Based on more than 20 years of scientific research and practice evidence, it features ideas and tips from experts that are direct and to-the-point. The series also highlights the real experiences of parents who have made real-life challenges related to the conflict in their family.
Using the garden as a metaphor to facilitate understanding, parents will learn what ‘parental conflict’ is and why it is important to move beyond just living with it, to talking about it. We explore how science can help parents of this generation to
- better understand how parental conflict can interfere with children’s attachment security;
- how children of different ages try to adapt to parental conflict;
- how parents can manage parental conflict, and;
- how they can be their child’s hero by preventing and repairing damage from parental conflict.
Watch the introduction video about why we should deal with conflict video here:
Video #1: What is ‘parental conflict’, and why should we talk about it?
Watch Chapter 1 – Let’s talk about ‘normal’ levels of conflict here:
Parental conflict can range from constructive to destructive, to domestic violence in its most extreme form. The good news is that normal levels of conflict are manageable and even give children chances to learn and grow, provided everyone remains safe and the ruptures are repaired. Much long-term harm to your child is preventable, and damage from many forms of conflict can be repaired.
Just as plants need soil to grow, your child needs emotional nourishment from you for their emotional and social development. As a parent, you are like a gardener. You and the relationships you create around your child become the soil your child grows in.
Low level conflict between parents is a normal part of family life. While it can include accommodating behaviours (such as staying calm, and seeing the other parent’s point of view), there are times when it becomes destructive. Being around destructive conflict between parents (such as anger, distrust, threats, shouting, or the ‘silent treatment’) is like a toxin or bad soil. You might not see the damage at first, but emotional toxins can have a negative impact on your child’s long-term mental health and future life chances.
Importantly, most parents can make small changes that make big differences to your child’s life, allowing them to thrive and flourish.
TAKE A MOMENT
Consider how you respond to your partner or former partner when you are in a verbal disagreement, that’s unpleasant but not unsafe. Do you recognise unhelpful behaviours in yourself? If you do, there is something you can do about it, beginning with communicating differently.
Download the handout here: Handout #1: What is ‘parental conflict’, and why should we talk about it?
Video #2: What your parents did not know
Watch Chapter 2 – Let’s talk about what your parents didn’t know here:
Your everyday love and care is vital to shaping your child’s emotional and social development. Conflict can impact how you parent and the quality of the relationship you have with your child.
Just as a plant needs energy from the sun to grow, a climate of care that fosters secure attachment lays the foundations for growth in your child’s higher brain, supporting their ability to stay calm, manage what they feel, and ultimately cope with stress and thrive in the real world. The first 1000 days of life – between conception and your child’s 2nd birthday – is a unique window of opportunity for you to build this sort of relationship with your child.
Secure attachments also underpin future relationships. A secure attachment to parents means a child is likely to be less distressed when separated from you, more confident mixing with others, and develop stronger social skills. As they venture out into the big world, they will be secure in the knowledge that there is a safe haven with you if they need it.
Conflict can impact how you parent. When you react, you are not as emotionally available to your child – not the secure base they need. Over time, that may shake their developmental foundations. If conflict goes on as a pattern, many parts of their emotional growth cannot take root…. And important parts of their emotional growth may start to wilt.
TAKE A MOMENT
Consider how you show your child love and care. Are you sensitive to their needs? Are you responsive and consistent in fulfilling them? Are you physically and emotionally available? These are simple ways in which you help your child develop and keep a secure attachment with you.
Download the handout here: Handout #2: What your parents did not know
Video #3: How does parental conflict impact on child development?
Watch Chapter 3 – Let’s talk about conflict and child development here:
All parents have some conflict. While some types of conflict can teach your child how to manage disagreements in their own life, others are not useful and can be harmful.
Just as a plant grows in the rain, your child’s attachment security grows in the kind of rain that happens in every family’s life.
Watching parents resolve conflict in a way that does not cause anyone to be emotionally or physically injured shows your child that you are there for them, even in bad weather, helping them feel secure. It also teaches them behaviours that are helpful in their relationships with others.
Other types of conflict can be destructive to your child. Frequent, intense, and poorly resolved conflict is like a storm, which can uproot your child’s trust, and attachment security. It can also increase the risk that relationship behaviours and problems are repeated, as research suggests these children can go on to have higher levels of destructive conflict in their own future relationships.
Your child does not have to hear or see conflict to be affected by it. Children are very sensitive to the emotional climate of the house and pick up on dark clouds and tensions easily.
TAKE A MOMENT
Consider how you can model how to discuss differences and resolve conflict calmly.
Download the handout here: Handout #3: How does parental conflict impact on child development?
Video #4: How do children adapt to parental conflict?
Watch Chapter 4 – Let’s talk about how children of different ages adapt to conflict here:
While children of all ages are sensitive to parental conflict, they adapt in different ways. Severe parental conflict may lead to a range of behavioural, emotional, academic, health, and social problems in your child.
A plant can sense and cope with harsh conditions such as drought by slowing or stopping growth, redirecting energy resources to protect itself from stress-related damage. Similarly, your child may try to control their experience of parental conflict in various ways to regain a sense of emotional security, which can be a drain on their developmental energy to grow.
Prenatal: Mothers who are stressed by conflict or the experience of violence during pregnancy can over-produce the stress hormone, cortisol, which can lead to long-lasting changes in their unborn child’s brain.
0-4 years: Parent conflict is particularly tough for children, as they are not born with any ability to control, or escape, the stress they feel. To cope, they may become watchful and jumpy, or very withdrawn.
5-12 years: Children typically may want to help parents in conflict by trying to distract them by misbehaving or stepping in.
13-17 years: Teenagers are more likely to try to avoid the conflict, often by hiding in their rooms, or being at other friend’s houses.
Children who witness severe and ongoing parental conflict may display:
- ‘Acting out’ (disruptive, impulsive, angry, or hyperactive behaviours)
- ‘Holding in’ (depression, anxiety, and withdrawal)
- Academic problems (learning, poor school grades)
- Health problems (digestive problems, fatigue, reduced physical growth, headaches, abdominal pains, difficulty sleeping)
- Social and relationship problems (such as difficulty making and keeping friends).
TAKE A MOMENT
Consider whether and how your conflict might be related to your child’s behaviours. Do they happen on a regular basis? Are they distressing to your child and those around them? Do they persist over a period of time (a month or longer) or across situations (at home and at child care/school)? If so, it might be time to get support or advice.
Download the handout here: Handout #4: How do children adapt to parental conflict?
Video #5: How can parents manage parental conflict?
Watch Chapter 5 – Let’s talk about how parents can help here:
Parents who do the best by their children do not just act out their conflict with each other. They learn to look through a developmental lens, think, and talk, about the good, the bad, and the ugly of what is happening in their family.
You can become a better gardener of your child’s emotional growth.
“I looked at things from my child’s point of view” Observe the conflict through your child’s eyes. This will help you to consider how the situation might be affecting your child’s development, and motivate you to respond more constructively.
“I started to see my partner as human, and not some kind of monster sent to destroy me” Conflict with your partner can be unsettling, and they may feel like a perpetual drain on you, or even like an enemy. Provided their behavior is essentially safe, then seeing the other parent as a real person in your child’s life – who they love, need, and depend on – will help you to gain some perspective.
“I thought like a parent, and not like an ex-partner. I kept my parenting mind on the job, not my litigating mind” Prioritise your child above your anger. Every time you are tempted to engage in conflict, step out of the situation, take stock of what is going on, and reengage in a way that is constructive to your child.
“I stopped blaming” Define the problems that you have with the other parent in terms of differences between you, rather than defects. A focus on defectiveness leads to blame and avoiding responsibility, and constructive interactions are not likely to result.
“I stopped reacting” Learn to control your impulses, so that you do not say or do anything that you will regret or wish you had done better.
“I repaired what could be repaired, and stepped up to the idea of preventing any more damage”
TAKE A MOMENT
Consider how you behave when you are with your child. Are you soundly in the role of parent? Reflect for a moment on the experience of other parents (such as those above). Are there ways you can be more fully focused on protecting and nourishing your child to thrive.
Download the handout here: Handout #5: How can parents manage parental conflict?
Video #6: How can parents help repair damage from parental conflict?
Watch Chapter 6 – Let’s talk about being your child’s hero here:
TAKE AWAY MESSAGE
As a parent, you are the best healer. It is never too late to learn how to do it differently – with the right support. Saying sorry for conflict that you were part of is a critical tool for re-stabilising your child.
When you step into the shoes of being the emotional hero in your child’s life, you are a positive role model who helps your family recover from conflict and violence, and who prevents future conflict and violence.
Saying sorry for conflict and violence that you were part of is a critical tool for re-stabilising your child. There are six steps to a developmental apology about parent conflict.
There are specialist services available to help family members work through very difficult issues of high level conflict and violence. Seek professional advice if you think you need some assistance.
TAKE A MOMENT
Consider how you might say sorry to your child during times of conflict.
Download the handout here: Handout #6: How can parents help repair damage from parental conflict?
Let’s Talk About Conflict © was written by Jennifer E. McIntosh and Craig Olsson from the Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED), Deakin University. It was produced by Relationships Australia South Australia.