Conflict in and of itself is not necessarily bad for a child to observe. Differences of opinion, upset and even anger are a normal part of life. However, how one behaves and manages the conflict can affect a child’s development.
In the context of a caring, respectful upbringing, conflict doesn’t include name calling, bullying to force a child to take sides, violence or any other behaviour that brings harm to another person. Conflict in a caring relationship does include negotiation, problem solving and empathy. In this context, conflict teaches kids how to get along well with others, even in view of differences, and with concern for the well-being of the other, regardless of the outcome.
Kids who are taught how to handle conflict grow up to be respectful and confident, and understand how to seek peaceful resolution when faced with opposing views. If however, conflict goes on and on and/or includes power and control strategies to achieve a resolution, then these children can grow up fearful, which leads to withdrawal in the face of differences – or alternately – to be bullying because they children believe that might and imposing oneself to win is the way to resolve differences.
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These children will view conflict as bad, either something to be avoided and hence goes unresolved, or something to conquer which leads to lopsided relationships where the child tries to get their way at the expense of the other. Conflict in this context can undermine self-esteem as well as intimate adult relationships later in life. Conflict in this context can also lead to anxiety, a negative anticipation of a future event (someone’s going to get hurt – again) or depression for having no power or control to affect a reasonable resolution.
It is not too difficult to assess healthy from unhealthy conflict. If the conflict gives rise to name calling, bullying, withdrawal, intimidation, threats of violence or harm or destruction of property, it is unhealthy. If however, those in conflict look for a mutually satisfactory resolution through negotiation, perhaps using a third party to mediate, turn-taking and otherwise respectful behaviour, then this can be healthy conflict.
Love your kids? Check out your own response to conflict. Consider what you are teaching and what your child is exposed to. Better ingredients lead to better outcomes. Need help to turn a corner on your conflict? Get help. If the conflict is too dire and unremitting, then consider getting out, but still seek as peaceful a strategy for doing so as possible.