Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry”

Resolve marital conflict visibly for positive child development

Maggie Moran is first author

Mr. Smith arrives home from work after a long day feeling hungry and worn out. He heads right to the couch and flips on the TV. Mrs. Smith is in the kitchen rushing to prepare dinner before a meeting later that evening.  Frustrated that he is not busy, Mrs. Smith asks Mr. Smith if he could please make use of himself and drive their son to soccer practice.  Mr. Smith rolls his eyes and stays put.  One thing leads to another, and suddenly the two are yelling at each other from across the room, displacing anger from a stressful day.  Meanwhile, their 8-year old son sits silently at the kitchen table, observing the interaction.

As most adults would agree, marriage is not always the fairytale we grow up thinking it will be.  When you factor in children, careers, and just the general ups and downs of life, disagreements, such as these, are bound to arise in one way or another.

Though conflict is inevitable, how much does it affect the development of children?  The American author Robert Fulgham wrote, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”  Luckily, parents have the power to turn these issues into positive family learning experiences.

As we know, home is the most significant environment for shaping the development of children.  Whether discussing eating and nutrition, self-regulation and habits, motivations and support, home is where it all begins.

Should children be sheltered from conflicts that characterize the home? Conflict is a natural component of human interaction. But we can distinguish between positive and negative conflict, between constructive and destructive interactions. 

  • Destructive conflict involves physical and verbal aggression, stonewalling, withdrawal, hostility, and lack of resolution
    • It is toxic to the family environment.
    • Constructive conflict involves choosing more direct communication with problem-solving, compromise, support, apologies, and clear resolutions
      • It has significant positive effects in the development of children.

University of Notre Dame’s Dr. Mark Cummings seeks to understand how parents can differentiate between types of conflict and set an example for children to deal with problems constructively.  Studies found that all conflict that children observe or sense incites a negative response.  However, the degree to which the problem is resolved by the parents is what affects the child’s concluding response. This means that when parents resolved conflict constructively, the children did not experience a negative response.  In fact, constructive marital conflict in parents correlated with positive effects in their children, such as increased emotional security and reduced aggression.  Longitudinal studies also showed long-term positive effects in these children, such as emotional stability and increased pro-social behavior.

In addition, the studies found a difference in what parents and children perceived as negative.  Many parents assumed that submissive responses were as effective as resolutions such as compromise, but children only benefitted when conflict was worked out with sincerity.

Further, resolution is necessary whether or not the act occurs in the presence of the child.  Research shows that children even as young as the age of 5 are perceptive of the quality of their parents relationship, and can observe if conflict has been resolved regardless of whether or not they were physically there when the resolution occurred.

No family is perfect, and ending all conflict with a sincere resolution is not as easy as it sounds.  However, here are some tips to set children on the path of positive future relationships and emotional security:

  • Be conscious of where conflict occurs—make an effort to hold your tongue until you are in a private setting and can control your words
  • Choose problem-solving and compromise over aggression and withdrawal
  • Make your apologies sincere and honest
  • Follow through and do your best to make your compromise stick

Remember the important distinctions between destructive and constructive conflict and how children need to see resolution to receive the benefits.


Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (1994).  Children and marital conflict:  The impact of family dispute and resolution.  New York: Guilford Press.

Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2002). Effects of marital conflict on children: recent advances and emerging themes in process-oriented research.  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43: 31-63. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.0003

Cummings, E. M., Zahn-Waxler, C. & Radke-Yarrow, M. (1981).  Young children’s responses to expressions of anger and affection by others in the family.  Childhood Development, 52(4): 274-1282.

Cummings, E. M., Iannotti, R. J., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (1985).  Influence of conflict between adults on the emotions and aggression of young children.  Developmental Psychology, 21(3): 495-507. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.21.3.495

Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (1998). Exploring Children’s Emotional Security as a Mediator of the Link between Marital Relations and Child Adjustment.  Child Development, 69(1): 124-139.

Davies, P. T., & Cummings, E. M. (1994).  Marital conflict and child adjustment: An emotional security hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 116(3): 387-411.  doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.116.3.387

Davies, P. T., Gordon, H. T., Goeke-Morey, M. C., Cummings, M. E., Shelton, K., Rasi, J. A., & Jenkins, J. M. (2002).  Child emotional security and interparental conflict.  Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 67(3): i-viii+1-127.


When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672).  New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L.  (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (W.W. Norton)

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