Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. They have a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. They also are certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.
What Is Family Conflict?
A mom comes home to her young children. Strapped for cash as a single income household, all the children pitch in making macaroni and cheese and frozen green beans for dinner. The mother is overworked and snaps at her children. Her children feel ashamed at school and unsure of how to help their family.
Now, picture another scenario. A wealthy family in the suburbs waits up for their youngest daughter to get in. At 16, she stumbles in after staying out hours too late with friends. An argument ensues and her dad throws a lamp. The mom is crying and the girl locks herself in the bathroom. In a house down the street, a banker arrives home drunk from a work function and screams at his wife, hitting her as their toddler hides under the stairs.
Family conflict affects all races and wealth brackets. No family is exempt from strife at some point in their relationship. Family conflict can be short lived, such as arguments at the dinner table. However, continuous family conflict, such as abuse, poverty, or mental instability can cause problems that ripple through the entire family unit. Today, we're going to look at how long term family conflict can affect the mental and physical health of the family members involved.
Mental Health and Family Conflict
Any kind of conflict is going to have an impact on the participants' mental health. Conflict within families can be especially hard because of the close relationships and close contact if families are living together.
Emotional Development in Children
Family conflict is damaging to young children who are still developing physically and emotionally. Children need to feel safe to develop appropriate attachment and emotional responses. If the caregiver does not provide a safe environment, the child's brain develops differently, causing the child to constantly be on alert. This can result in post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety, or depression.
Households with high levels of family conflict often neglect young children, either showing negative behavior or limiting their interactions and play. This can create deficits in cognitive development leading to learning disabilities or children starting school behind grade level. Children that go through neglect due to family conflict, such as an alcoholic or mentally ill parent, also have more behavioral problems that can lead to problems at school.
Anxiety and Depression
Family conflict can have long lasting effects, even if children are older. Family dysfunction, including marital stress, negative parenting strategies such as violence and psychological manipulation, are predictors of anxiety disorders later in life.
Imagine a family with a high level of conflict. Dad is always mad at mom. To him, she's constantly doing something wrong, such as not having dinner ready on time, or not keeping the house clean during the day. When Joe, their ten year old son, comes home after school, he frequently witnesses dad yelling at mom. Sometimes, dad's anger gets directed at Joe simply because he is nearby. Overtime, Joe's anxiety increases. He learns to be afraid coming home, and without him even knowing it, his body tenses up walking in and his heart begins to race. Even after Joe moves out of his parents' house, he still feels the same stress walking in and certain sights or sounds still trigger his stress to increase. Joe might develop depression as well. Struggling to cope with the stress of his parental conflict and reconcile the dysfunction, he becomes sad and even hopeless about the possibility of a healthy relationship in his life. Like many survivors, Joe blames himself and spirals into a depression.
Physical Health and Family Conflict
Mental health isn't the only thing affected by conflict at home. The physical health of individuals is also affected. Abusive households may cause physical harm to family members, such as bruises, broken bones or burns. But, mental stress can also cause physical problems.
Family conflict causes an increased risk for drug and alcohol addiction. Addiction can lead to liver problems, such as cirrhosis, cancer, heart disease and overdose. Exercise can be a healthy response to conflict, but prolonged conflict at home can result in exercise or eating disorders, where a person restricts their food or exercises to the point of injury to control their anxiety.
Severe family conflict not only causes a response from children that lead to physical problems, but also causes the physical ailments themselves. Studies have also shown a link between abusive childhood environments and increased risk for heart disease, cancer, and lung disease. Children who suffered abuse had changes to their DNA, called epigenetic changes, that caused them to be more predisposed to certain diseases. The stress actually changed their genetic predisposition for disease.
Family conflict is any conflict that comes between family members, such as parents, siblings, or extended family. Conflict has negative effects on all parties involved, especially children. Early exposure to unsafe environments in dysfunctional families can cause PTSD, anxiety disorders and learning disabilities. It also predisposes children to emotional outburst and trouble regulating their emotions, which can cause problems at school. People living in family conflict are at greater risk for anxiety and depression, even after they leave the home, as well as addiction and eating disorders. Family conflict may escalate to physical abuse, physically harming family members. It also can cause an increased risk for many diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
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