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

Resolve marital conflict visibly for positive child development

*First author is Maggie Moran

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


1. Kindness in Kids and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Dr. Sarina Saturn)

2. Why Synchronize and Bond With Your Children (Dr. Ruth Feldman)

3. “I want it—now!” How Children Learn Self-Control (Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker)

4. Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress (Dr. Bruce Perry)

5. “Mr. Mom” The Old Normal (Dr. Lee Gettler)

6. Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important (Dr. Holly Brophy-Herb)

7. Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry” (Dr. Mark Cummings)

8. Domination or Partnership? How Does Your Family Stack Up? (Dr. Riane Eisler)

9. Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child (Dr. Robin Nelson)

*Posts are based on talks presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.

ALSO SEE: What is Child Flourishing?

Happiness and Growth through Play

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

How to Grow a Smart Baby



6 Hidden Myths Behind Baby Sleep Training Advocacy

Child Sleep Training’s “Best Review of Research”

Parents Misled by Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Reports

REBUTTAL to critique of "Parents Misled by...Sleep Training Reports"

Dangers of "Crying it Out"

Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make

'Let Crying Babes Lie'? So Wrong

Simple Ways to Calm a Crying Baby

Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development

Normal Infant Sleep: Changing Patterns

Normal Parent Behaviors and Why They Won’t Hurt Your Child

Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing's Importance

More Normal Parenting for Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep-Tiredness?

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success

SIDS: Risks and Realities

Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?

Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives


New Moms Need Social Support

Painkillers for Childbirth? The Few Pros and Many Cons

What's the Use of Midwives and Doulas?

Jesus Had a Home Birth

What if Jesus Had Been Born in the USA?


Why Continue to Harm Boys from Ignorance of Male Anatomy?

What Is the Greatest Danger for an Uncircumcised Boy?

Circumcision Ethics and Economics

Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities

More Circumcision Myths You May Believe: Hygiene and STDs

Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe


Stand Up For Breastfeeding

Talk About Breastfeeding With Your Family, Friends and Doctor

Breastmilk Wipes Out Formula: Responses to Critical Comments

In Light of Last Week's Posts: Is Pushing* Formula Evil?

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5 Things You Thought You Knew about Breastfeeding

The TREMENDOUS Benefits of Doing What is Normal: Breastfeeding

Myths you probably believe about infant formula

Your assumptions about infant formula are probably wrong

It’s Breastfeeding Week: Why should you care?


Research on Spanking: It's Bad for ALL Kids

What Happened to Ethics in Pediatric Medicine?

Baby-, Parent- or Life-Centered Parenting?

Ten Ways to Truly Respect Motherhood

Slings and Heroes

Parents Should Know the Limitations of Science Experiments

Babies "don’t cry in Africa," why should they cry in the USA?

Blame the baby or blame the experts?

Dumb Parent(ing), Dumberer Child

How to Grow a Smart Baby

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Undercare: The bane of American life?

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

Is it good to make kids afraid?

How NOT to Ruin a Child

Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?

Mother’s touch of dead baby causes “miracle”

What Does Good Parenting Look Like? You Decide.


Childism Revisited

Are You a “Childist?" Test Yourself

Babies Are Needy—Does That Bug You?

Do We Need Declaration for the Rights of the Baby?

Where Are the Happy Babies?

The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

Believing "children are resilient" may be a fantasy

How America Morally Fails its Children: What Needs to Change

Increase the well-being of children around you


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 Psychology, 10(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)