Please Note: Only COVID-19 vaccinated adults and children over 5 can attend the Clinic.

Conflictual Parents, Irritable Babies: Its Recursive

On meeting parents and a new baby, often the first question asked is ’Are they a good baby?,’ meaning; do they feed, sleep, and settle easily. Equally, people may look to the parents’ conflictual relationship and comment; ‘No wonder that poor baby is so unsettled being around those two!’ While there is a substantial body of research demonstrating that conflictual parental relationships create family environments that contribute to children’s insecurity and symptomatology, less attention has been paid to the individual child’s temperament as a factor in later parental conflict.

Does a Child’s Temperament Contribute to Parental Conflict?

Calkins et. al. (2024) explored this question with a sample of 150 families who were assessed during pregnancy, when the child was one, two, and three-and-a-half years old. They were interested to assess whether a child’s negative emotionality at a year-old predicted parental conflict at three-and-a-half, due to destructive co-parenting dynamics during toddlerhood. In addition, they hoped to identify pre-natal protective factors that could avoid this outcome.

What Did they Find?

Results were different for mothers and fathers. Higher level of infant negative emotionality was associated with less adaptive interparental conflict management during the pre-school years ‘by undermining the mother’s (but not the father’s) report of coparenting relationship quality during toddlerhood.’ However, these effects were only observed when the couple were assessed during pregnancy as having a less secure relationship and fathers reporting lower self-compassion. The lack of regulatory resources available to the couple from the beginning, suggests that the challenge of parenting an infant who frequently shows elevated levels of intense distress has the potential to undermine the quality of the inter-parenting relationship.

How is this Useful?

These results point to the value of intervention in pregnancy to bolster parents who may produce a child with an intense and challenging temperament. It also speaks to the need to view parenting as a joint activity where both bring different risks and challenges rather than the primary responsibility being with the mother. Recent literature has reported that self-compassion is a modifiable factor in fathers, especially during pregnancy, while addressing and developing a secure base shared by the couple, will help them manage their responses when faced with an intense and reactive baby.

Let’s Start Early

Families often present to therapy when children are showing extreme behaviours and parents have lost hope that they can work well together to address the difficulties. While good work can and is done at this stage, protecting an intense child from parental discord seems a much better option. Intense children may be challenging, but they are also enthusiastic, exciting, and fun. Helping them harness this energy in positive ways through parenting that is self-regulated and self-respectful is a good place to start.


Calkins, F. C., Finkelstein, S. D., Martin, M. J., & Brock, R. L. (2024). The indirect impact of infant negative emotionality on interparental conflict via perceptions of coparenting challenges: What prenatal resources mitigate this risk? Family Process, 00, 1–20.

Free weekly
director’s notes
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

By subscribing you agree to receive marketing communications from Bower Place. You can unsubscribe at any time or contact us to have your details deleted from our database.