Parental management of family conflict is key to child development
Photo: niko si. Creative Commons.

Parental management of family conflict and stress is central to child development

By Jack O'Sullivan and , | January 2019 

Coping with family conflict and adversity creates major challenges for mothers and fathers.

When my children were younger, we’d read a picture book about Jenny and her growing bag of worries. It followed her everywhere until she was totally weighed down and could barely walk. Finally, Jenny confided in a kindly adult, who slowly unpacked the huge bag, one worry at a time.

Some worries disappeared upon being exposed to the light. It turned out that some did not belong to Jenny at all, but, instead, to other people. And some needed sorting out right away. In the story, Jenny’s tears turn to smiles as her burdens melt away. At last she can enjoy being a child.

Virginia Ironside’s ‘The Huge Bag of Worries’ is akin to the family conflict and stress that can often burden and debilitate parents, making it hard for them to provide the best environment for child development. These are not just conflicts with former and current partners. They include difficulties with their children. Much family conflict and stress is also rooted in the demands of jobs and in outside pressures such as poverty and racism.

The capacity to manage, and sometimes set aside, family conflict and stress seems to lie at the heart of parenting for successful child development, according to findings highlighted by our expert researchers in the Child and Family Blog.

Many solutions lie beyond individual parents: policy makers, service providers, schools and business bear considerable responsibility for adapting work, creating supports, developing education and reducing poverty in ways that can lessen family conflict and stress. But individual mothers and fathers can do much to lighten the bag of family conflict and stress that undermines child development.

Susan Golombok sums up the challenges. First, she demonstrates that family type – be it the traditional family with two heterosexual parents or a ‘new family form’ with a single parent or same-sex parents – has little bearing per se on children’s outcomes.

“What matters is how well parents avoid, manage and resolve multiple potential stresses and family conflicts so they can maintain high quality love and care.”

Then, Golombok focusses on what does matter: family processes, namely ‘the quality of relationships in the family, such as warmth, levels of interaction, openness of communication and methods of discipline’. In essence, Golombok is talking about how well parents avoid, manage and resolve stress and family conflict to maintain the high-quality love and care needed for robust child development.

On relationships with children, our experts could not be clearer. Whatever else is achieved by spanking or smacking children, it doesn’t make them ‘nicer’, Elizabeth Gershoff and colleagues find. It has no impact on the positive qualities that most parents value in children, such as friendliness, openness, kindness, sympathy and understanding of others. By contrast, hugging and warmth do improve young children’s behaviour.

In a similar vein, Ross Thompson details how parents and caregivers who show kindness, and who talk to toddlers about emotions, tend to help young children become caring people. When emotional landscapes are explained to young children, they act in helpful, kind and considerate – that is, “prosocial” – ways, Thompson concludes.

These can be tough models to follow for any parent who is stressed. It is even tougher, perhaps, to manage family conflict with a child’s second parent. But once again, the advice from research is clear.

Phillip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan, along with many other researchers, show that unresolved family conflict – whether between intact or separated parental couples – is an important risk factor for child development.

“The enduring capacities of parents to be kind to their children, mend family conflict, and moderate the stresses imposed by an often impoverishing world offer great hope for child development.”

If parents collaborate effectively and don’t undermine each other’s parenting, children do better – socially, emotionally, behaviourally and academically. They can forget about their parents and feel free to explore their own worlds and learn new things. If parents don’t achieve this equilibrium, then children can become anxious or fearful and find it difficult to concentrate on learning.

Tied in with this is fathers’ positive involvement in their children’s lives. Fathers’ absence is often both a marker and a casualty of unresolved stress and family conflict. As many of our contributors find, children often pay a high price for this loss.

What about poverty, another particularly great source of family stress? We know that young children from disadvantaged backgrounds can fall behind their peers in language and learning, even as early as age three. In classrooms, they often have difficulty focusing their attention, thinking, and managing their emotions.

Poverty has powerful effects on child development, which can even be identified biologically. But the good news from neuroscientists is that these impacts are not hard-wired or inevitable. Parents can and do make a huge difference in moderating and managing the stress of poverty to reduce the risk to child development.

Researchers such as Michael Meaney are showing that warm, supportive relationships can, for example, reduce the stress hormones that are released in adversity and can even reverse the behavioural and other effects of hormone overload.

Parents, particularly those who are disadvantaged, must not simply be set adrift to manage the daunting pressure and stress that they face in raising children. However, it is also important to recognise that they have considerable enduring capacity to be kind to their children, mend family conflict, and moderate the stress and difficulty imposed by poverty and other hardships. These skills in managing adversity that already exist in many families offer great hope for child development.

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