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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Conflict is inevitable because people are not always going to agree about everything, particularly when there are more than two people in a family. How parents and families handle that conflict determines whether it will escalate into more aggressive forms of communication. Mismanaged communication is largely responsible for much of this escalation, which often starts with poor listening skills, being disagreeable, stubborn or defensive, and being unable to find reasonable solutions. These subtle problems can then lead to more serious verbal abuse, expressions of angry emotions– such as hostility and name-calling. When there’s verbal conflict between parents, the family is less likely to be cohesive, warm and affectionate, compared to less conflictual parents.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds Seeing it from a family system’s perspective, parental conflict doesn’t just remain within the dyad. It can be observed, and spills over into other subsystems– like siblings and individuals in the family. For example, negative communication styles are noticed and can be modeled by other family members. When a child then acts out of anger towards a classmate, because it was modeled for them by their parents, their misbehavior spills back over into the family system, causing additional stress. Physical aggression varies widely in severity and forms, from throwing dishes and other household items, to using weapons to harm one’s partner.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds Situational couple violence refers to heated verbal conflicts that escalate to the point that one, or both partners, uses physical aggression– such as pushing, shoving, or throwing things. In this way it’s a reactive form of aggression. Research has shown that men and women are just as likely to use this type of aggression, and some studies even indicate that women use it more than men. Intimate terrorism is different. This proactive form of aggression is used to dominate and control the other partner. This aggression is used to intimidate and control what the other partner says and does, with words and manipulation, or physical violence. There are cycles of abuse with this form of terrorism, which is not as common as situational couple violence.

Skip to 2 minutes and 15 seconds First, there’s tension-building phase where negative feelings, such as jealousy, escalate. And then they start battering the other partner with rage. After this stage the batterer will apologize and promise to change. The use of verbal aggression and physical force, in families, occurs within and across generations, because it’s learned by family members as a way to communicate and resolve conflict– no matter how unhealthy it is. This intergenerational transmission has been called, the cycle of family violence. When children perceive conflict between their parents, they first engage in what’s called a primary appraisal. They have to decide whether their argument poses a threat to them, and whether they feel emotionally secure.

Skip to 2 minutes and 57 seconds If their parents are fighting about what movie they’re going to see, they will not likely see that as much of a threat, as if they are arguing about the future of their marriage. The more conflict the child sees in this primary appraisal, the more distress it will cause for the child. If the child believes the conflict between the parents is a threat, they will now make what is called a secondary appraisal. Now they try to understand why the conflict is happening and what they should do about it.

Skip to 3 minutes and 24 seconds If the child got bad grades on their report card and their parents have an argument that night, the child may blame their behavior as the cause of the conflict– even if it had nothing to do with it. The more blame a child puts on themselves for the conflict, more upset, distressed, and guilty they become. In the most recent version of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual– which is used by clinicians to diagnose psychiatric issues– the term, Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress, or CAPRD, was entered. Please watch my interview with Dr. William Burnett, a psychiatrist from Vanderbilt University, as he describes how parental distress and conflict affects children.

Psychological and Physical Conflict

Conflict in relationships can take many forms. This video describes some of the ways conflict can manifest in relationships and how it affects the family system.

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