Parents and carers in conflict or separating
Our clinical team at the Centre has put together some tips for parents and carers experiencing conflict, and advice on reducing the impact of conflict between parents and carers on children.
Conflict and separation
All parents and carers sometimes argue with one another, but sometimes, conflict between parents or carers can increase to a level that is not healthy for the family. This can happen for lots of reasons. For example, the Covid-19 lockdown, where families share the same space under increased stress and uncertainty about the future, with reduced support from friends and extended families, may increase arguments.
Conflict can also occur when parents and carers are managing stress or worries about financial issues, issues of trust and fidelity, parenting practices, or where there is stress or trauma in the family. This includes when parents or carers have decided to separate. Stress does not just make conflict more likely, but it also makes us less able to manage conflict. When we are stressed, we are less able to think objectively and see things from another person’s point of view, and more likely to react in automatic, poorly thought through ways.
Please note, this page is focused on non-abusive conflict between parents. Links to support for parents and carers experiencing domestic abuse can be found in the ‘Additional support’ section below.
The impact of conflict on children and young people
Conflict can impact parents and carers who are in a relationship, and also those who are separated or divorced. Some parents or carers may find themselves stuck in a pattern of frequent and stressful conflict, and this can be difficult for everyone in the family. It can be particularly upsetting and confusing for children and young people when their parents or carers argue, and they can often feel caught in the middle or in some way responsible for the conflict.
We know as a parent or carer, the last thing you want to do is harm your child in any way, but even indirect exposure to conflict that is frequent, intense and poorly resolved can, over time, have a serious negative impact on a child or young person’s wellbeing. It can also damage the parent-child relationship as children often struggle with loyalty bonds and, for complex reasons, feel compelled to ‘pick a side’. This may be the case even if the parents are not actively trying to get the child on their side. Some parents and carers may need help to manage stress and find new ways of communicating in order to break the cycle of arguments and co-parent more effectively so that their children can feel happier.
It takes a concerted effort from parents and their networks to protect children from conflict.
Think how might your child have been exposed to parental conflict? This goes beyond arguing in front of your child, it can be much more subtle than that. It can be painful to think about these things, so use your network for support, but it is really important to consider how your child may be harmed by conflict.
We encourage both parents/ carers to adopt a shared mantra: ‘No matter what the conflict is between the parents, we must work together to protect the child from that conflict and maintain their relationship with both parents.’
What can you do?
Commit to working with your network and your co-parent or carer to take responsibility and actively work to protect your child from exposure to parental conflict.
This could be by finding new ways to work with your co-parent, finding news ways to interact with them, such as through parenting agreements, or seeking additional support.
The impact of parental conflict on children
Emma Morris, member of the Family Ties Team at the Anna Freud Centre, talks about the impact that parental conflict can have on children. Download the transcript for this video.
The impact of child triangulation on a child's mental health
Emma Morris, member of the Family Ties Team at the Anna Freud Centre, discusses the impact of child triangulation on a child's mental health and wellbeing.
Short-term strategies to protect children from parental conflict
In the short term, if you realise that you have not managed to shield your child from an argument (for instance, if your child has seen or heard you arguing or your child has seen or heard you upset or angry after an argument), it is important to try to repair things, to help the child understand that they are in no way responsible for the argument and to reduce the risk of long-term impact of the conflict.
Later, when things are calm, take the time to have a conversation with your child about what happened and why. For instance, if you argued with your co-parent or carer in front of your child, maybe just apologise that your child had to see that argument, and reassure them that the issue was one between the adults and not something they need to worry about. If you said something in anger about the other parent, explain that you didn’t mean what you said, you were just cross. This is so that your child’s feelings about the other parent are not influenced by your own. If you were able to resolve the conflict with the co-parent or carer, let your child know. This helps demonstrate that conflicts can be sorted out even if it feels hard to do. Even if you have not resolved the conflict, you still need to make it clear to the child that it is nothing to do with them.
Ensure that the child understands that it is not because of them, and is in no way their fault, but that the parents are responsible for working things out.
Medium and long term strategies to protect children from parental conflict
There are different ways that parents and carers can work to both manage the conflict between themselves, and to reduce the impact of conflict on their children:
Involve your support network: The network around you, of friends, family and community, are an essential part of supporting families during conflict. Identify your support network and don’t be afraid to reach out for support from them or some of the organisations listed below. Try and think with your network about how you can work together to ensure that your children are not exposed to parental conflict.
Know your triggers: Think about what triggers a strong reaction and stops you from being able to think rationally. It might be something obvious, for example, an upsetting word or image, or a memory from your past that causes you to have a strong reaction. Or we might not know where they come from, but we can usually identify the things that particularly irritate or annoy us. Being aware of what they are, means that you can look out for them, and when you recognise them in a conversation or interaction, step away from the situation and take some time to cool down before you step back into the interaction with your co-parent or carer.
Reducing life stressors: Think about whether there are ways that you can reduce some of the stress in your life. This is a great opportunity to think with your network about how they can support you. Could one of your support network provide childcare, so you can have a bit of time on your own or with friends? Do you have high expectations for yourself in your job or your personal life? Can you work to take that pressure off a little bit? Ask your network for help.
Coping strategies: How do you manage strong feelings or being upset? Do you have strong coping strategies or are others less helpful? Talk to your network, do they have suggestions? It can be useful to think about coping strategies in two broad categories
Emotion-Focused Coping Skills:
These coping strategies are focused on bringing down emotional arousal, and include activities like exercising, taking a bath, meditating, and giving yourself a pep talk. These are just some suggestions, find what works for you to manage your feelings, or talk to a friend or family member about what might help
Problem- Focused Coping Skills:
Problem focused coping skills work to address the difficulties, like working on managing your time, establishing boundaries, and asking your network for help.
Letting go: Think about the conflict between you and your co-parent or carer. Is there conflict that is ongoing and harmful and unresolved, that you are unlikely to be able to resolve. Think about whether you can tolerate that there is more than one feeling or truth. Consider whether you can, even temporarily, let go of that conflict.
Separated or separating
Separation or divorce is a difficult time for the whole family. Although the relationship has broken down, the family still exists. Therefore, parents need to continue communicating and working together for their children.
Your child's interest is paramount: Recognise that the child has the right to a full and loving relationship with both parents
Co-parenting plan: Work out a co-parenting plan to discuss and manage shared child care arrangements, such as how school runs, weekends and holidays will work. A co-parenting plan has more flexibility than a custody arrangement, but has the similar aim of supporting the child to have a relationship with both parents.
Maintain consistency: Agree things like bedtimes, curfews and homework for both parents. Having two sets of rules can be confusing for children and shows a lack of dependency and consistency between the parents.
Manage your feelings elsewhere: There is often a lot of anger, hurt or resentment between separated parents. These feelings need to take a backseat to the needs of your children. Get your feelings out somewhere else, and never vent to your children. Friends, therapists, or even a loving pet can all make good listeners.
Helpful communication: Peaceful, consistent and purposeful communication with your co-parent is an essential aim. Think about communication as having the highest importance for your child’s wellbeing.
Discipline: When disciplining, try to follow similar systems of consequences for broken rules. This shows your children that you are working together.
Support both homes: Children of separated parents in conflict often tell us that they find the move between homes very difficult. When a child moves between homes, try and make the transition smooth and not stressful. Be civil to the other parent- greet them and handover any relevant information. Let the child bring toys between homes. If there are disagreements about contact, for example a parent drops off a child consistently late, manage these disagreements away from the child.
Managing and reducing parental conflict is really difficult, and there are increasing numbers of programmes and professionals that can provide support to parents and carers who need it. Some options for additional support are listed below. You can find more information about support in your local area by speaking to your GP.
Self-care is an important component of supporting children and young people through parental conflict. If parents don’t care for themselves, they are less able to support the children and young people in their care. For more self-care advice please visit Self-care for parents and carers.
Young parents and carers can also view and download our Self-care top tips for young parents and carers booklet here.
View a list of over 90 self-care strategies which may help you if you're feeling low or anxious.
For free 24/7 text message support, please see AFC Crisis Messenger.
What is self-care and why is it important?
Social Worker and Family Therapist Joanne Jackson speaks about self-care, and why it is important.
If you’re a parent or carer who is experiencing conflict within your relationship, you may want additional support in managing that conflict. There are a wide variety of resources for parents and carers to access free of charge.
If you feel like you need additional support, Anna Freud offers a variety of services within our clinical team.
Support from Anna Freud
Family Ties Online Therapy for Parents in Conflict – We provide an online support programme for parents or carers, together or separated, who are struggling with conflict. Due to funding, we have limited places on the programme that are available free of charge. You can find out more about the programme, and refer yourself or someone else, by clicking here.
No Kids in the Middle– No Kids in the Middle is a multi-family group for parents or carers who have separated, and are experiencing parental conflict. To find out more about these groups, and to refer yourself or someone else, visit the webpage here.
Support from external organisations
There are also organisations across the UK that provide additional support for parents and carers who have conflict. Please note that Anna Freud does not necessarily endorse the organisations listed:
Relate: The relationship charity offer a range of support for family life and parenting, as well as conflict with relationship. Find out more
ClickRelationships: Offers a wide range of relationship support, as well as support for parenting together and apart. Find out more
Action for Children: Offers Parent Talk, which provides parenting advice to families, and parenting coaches for those who want it. Find out more
SeeItDifferently: A collaboration between Good Things Foundation and OnePlusOne, See It Differently has co-produced digital content to support parents and carers has digital content that helps parents recognise and work through different conflict scenarios. Find out more
CAFCASS: The Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service has a broad range of information, including a directory of further services for parents and families. Find out more
National Domestic Abuse Helpline/Refuge: A website and helpline created with domestic abuse survivors through which women fleeing domestic abuse can seek support. Find out more
Women’s Aid: A national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. Find out more
Professionals working with families in conflict will be well aware of the challenges that come with supporting families. It is essential to keep the child in mind, ensuring that we are working to reduce the impact of conflict on children, and to ensure that we are promoting and protecting the child’s relationships with their parents.
The Anna Freud Centre provide a variety of training for professionals who want to develop their skills in working with high conflict parents.
We have also piloted and evaluated interventions for families in conflict, conducting service evaluations, working with local authorities, and training frontline mental health practitioners to deliver our programmes. If you are interested in learning more about our research, please contact email@example.com