Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Adolescents' Perceptions of Parental Conflict: The Downside of Silence

Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Adolescents' Perceptions of Parental Conflict: The Downside of Silence

Article excerpt


Conflict between parents has been widely studied. However, the possible impact of nonverbal, nonphysical, silent conflict has not been examined. In this study, young people were interviewed about the characteristics of silent conflict, its impact, and their behaviours in response. Characteristics included high emotional content, behavioural changes in parents, and lack of resolution. Young people felt helplessness, a lack of control, insecurity, inability to monitor what was happening, confusion, and blame. In response to their parents' silent conflict, they reported behaving badly to distract parents, taking sides, and self-harming. Overall, it was apparent that silent conflict is a real phenomenon readily recognised by young people, causing them distress. In particular, its characteristics of nonresolution, lack of identifiable content, and the consequent lack of ability to make sense of it, indicate that it is a particularly difficult aspect of interparental conflict.

Keywords: interparental conflict; silence; distress; coping


Conflict between parents is commonplace, and there is a large body of research that has examined the impact of physical and verbal conflict between parents on their children. The majority of studies find that interparental conflict has a negative impact on young people. To the extent that conflict between parents that is frequent, intense, unresolved, and about the children, it poses significant risks for their wellbeing; this includes both internalising (anxiety, low self-esteem, depression) and externalising (behaviour problems, conduct disorders) problems (Cummings & Davies 1994; Davies & Cummings 1998; Harold, Fincham, Osborne & Conger 1997; Harold, Shelton, Goeke-Morey & Cummings 2004). However, the impact of conflict is not always negative; it can make a positive contribution to children's development. This is the case when arguments are low-key, constructive, and lead to resolution, whereby young people are able to observe constructive resolution of conflict by their parents.

Traditional advice to conflicted parents has been to not argue in front of the children, since exposure to their disagreements is demonstrably distressing to them. However, it is possible that ongoing, unspoken, and unresolved conflict between parents is also damaging and that children are acutely aware of this covert disagreement. We would argue that this 'silent' conflict is likely to be problematic. For example, Wild and Richards (2001), in a study of nine- to eleven-year-olds, found that these comparatively young children were aware of covert and subtle strategies used by parents to convey their unhappiness with each other. These included stonewalling and avoiding each other.

In a study of adolescents, Tschann, Flores, Pasch and Marin (1999) reported that their perceptions of their parents' withdrawing behaviour in relation to each other was related to their academic competence and their self-esteem and was as strongly correlated with these outcomes as the content of the conflict and the degree of resolution--factors that have been shown to be consistently related to outcomes for young people. De Arth, Pendley and Cummings (2002) also noted in vignette studies involving six- to sixteen-year-olds that nonverbal, nonphysical expressions of conflict had as powerful an effect on their emotional responses as verbal expressions. Whereas the majority of measures developed to assess parental conflict ask questions addressing physical and verbal conflict, the literature suggests that nonverbal, nonphysical disagreement might be as damaging in some contexts.

We argue that nonverbal, silent conflict is likely to be, by its very nature, particularly problematic for young people. It is unlikely to be, or to be seen to be, resolved, and this is an aspect of conflict that confers risk for children. Second, it may be difficult or impossible for a child to identify and, therefore, to appraise and cope with this kind of conflict. …

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