The relative contribution of family conflict to children’s health and development

  • Vashti Berry

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Conflict is an inherent part of human relationships and is ubiquitous within families. These disputes are not in themselves harmful to children. Rather, it is the strategies used to resolve conflict that have a bearing on children’s health and development, notably whether family members employ aggressive or violent tactics. The study examines evidence from a sample of 161 children, selected to be representative of children living in Dublin, Ireland. It explores children’s responses to different methods of conflict resolution in two family relationships and seeks to expand the understanding of how social problems, such as child maltreatment and domestic violence, occur within normative family processes. The study shows that the use of psychological and minor physical aggression to resolve conflict in the parental relationship and the parent-child relationship is typical. It occurs in 90 per cent of families over a twelve-month period. Severe physical force or violence between family members is less common. The study finds that while there is considerable variation in children’s responses to conflict resolution strategies, children who experience aggression in both the inter-parental and parent-child relationship are at elevated risk for behavioural and emotional problems. The frequency and severity of the aggression explains some of the variance in child well-being but not all. The study lends support to Bronfrenbrenner’s (1979) ecological theory by demonstrating empirically how the individual, family, neighbourhood, and potentially societal, contexts moderate the transmission of poor conflict resolution strategies to children's health and development. The findings suggest that while the child's age and gender play a small role, family and neighbourhood contexts are strongly implicated in outcomes for children exposed to risky conflict resolution tactics in the home. In particular, parental mental health problems, low socio-economic status and poor peer relationships increase children’s vulnerability to the effects of aggressive conflict tactics. The relevance of the evidence for policy and practice are drawn out. A distinction can be drawn between responses to pathological behaviour by parents and normative, yet harmful, conflict resolution strategies. Public health approaches to promote reasoning within families as well as prevention and early intervention strategies that support all families, not just economically disadvantaged parents known to child protection and domestic violence agencies, are required. In addition, greater sensitivity to children's gender and stage of development and more attention to policies that reduce stress on families and violence within communities are advocated.
Date of Award20 Oct 2008
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorMichael Little (Supervisor), Louise Brown (Supervisor) & Jane Batchelor (Supervisor)


  • child development
  • family conflict
  • children's services

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