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How fighting Hurts Young People

It is generally accepted that conflict between parents, or interparental conflict (IPC) ranging from minor disagreements to physical violence, is a significant stressor across all family structures. However there has been little discrimination in terms of frequency, intensity, content, and resolution of disagreement between parents and the link to negative consequences for adolescent health and wellbeing and whether these processes were different between married or separated families. This is a significant gap in the literature necessary to guide the development of theory-based and effective interventions for young people exposed to this stressor.

This was the question addressed by researchers O’Hara et al. (2023) with a sample of over 1,000 adolescents. They operationalised the definition of IPC to include the frequency, intensity, content, and resolution of disagreements between parents and explored the question of ‘whether interparental conflict was differentially related to forms of emotional security (i.e., family, interparental, parent–child) and whether forms of emotional security were differentially associated with mental health problems for adolescents in married versus divorced/separated families.’ This is a central question raised by warring couples debating the merits of separation and its potential impact on their children and one often posed to practitioners.

The authors conclude that the ‘most important contribution is to show that IPC had the same implications for emotional insecurity across multiple family structures with few exceptions’ and that ‘all forms of emotional insecurity had the same implications for mental health problems for adolescents residing in married and separated/divorced families.’ They note that, against their prediction, the relative association between IPC and family insecurity, including child–parent, interparental, and family insecurity did not differ with separation, suggesting that young people continue to derive their sense of emotional security or insecurity from the interparental relationship and particularly their parent’s interactions around disagreements.

Another observation was that all forms of emotional insecurity predicted self-reported internalizing and externalizing problems for adolescents from both married and divorced families. Unfortunately, a high-quality parent–child relationship did not mitigate the harmful effects of interparental conflict on emotional insecurity or mental health problems. An exception was parent–child insecurity which only predicted externalizing problems in married families. The authors note that this result was hard to explain and suggest that in separated families more complex family constellations, may result in parent–child security being derived from relationships with multiple attachment figures.

These results provide valuable information and direction to both the therapeutic process and for clients. Clearly the first and most effective intervention is the reduction of episodes of interparental conflict as the data clearly demonstrates that these behaviours put adolescents at risk for both increased internalizing and externalizing symptoms. Sadly, this is often difficult to achieve in contentious separations and young people in the middle become more sensitized over time. While working to reduce the incidents of IPC the authors suggest work to help young people weather these episodes and especially the difficult emotions and unhelpful cognitions they elicit , increase parents use of constructive conflict strategies and teach them to be responsive and sensitive to their children’s fears and reassure them that they will continue to be cared for and the fighting will end.

So, in answer to the question “Will separation hurt our children?” one can only say “It will make little difference until the fighting stops.”


O’Hara, K., Cumming. E. and , Davies, P. (2023) Interparental conflict and adolescent emotional security across family structures Family Process. 2023;00:1–19.

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