Reducing Parental Conflict Toolkit

Part One - The approach

1. Who is this Toolkit for?

This toolkit is a practical and user-friendly practitioner guide. It aims to:

  • support everyday practice
  • build on the skills used when supporting children, young people, and families.

Supporting healthy relationships is everyone’s business. All practitioners working across the Continuum of Need can provide support.

This includes practitioners working in:

  • health
  • education
  • early help
  • children’s social care
  • housing organisations
  • community and voluntary organisations

In this toolkit we use the words ‘practitioner’ and ‘worker’ interchangeably. They describe the people who work with families, e.g:

  • a Teaching Assistant having conversations at the school gate
  • a volunteer supporting a Mum at a toddler group
  • a Keyworker doing a whole family assessment as part of Early Help support

They all help families experiencing problems. They provide clear consistent messages. They highlight the importance of strong, conflict free family relationships.

We hope that relationship enquiry will become a natural part of your work as confidence grows. Whatever your role, there is something in the toolkit that will help families. With your support they can:

  • think about the quality of their close relationships 
  • learn some new strategies to manage unhelpful, damaging conflict

2. What this Toolkit does

This toolkit is a suite of information, tools and resources. It is not a structured programme of work or intervention. Any practitioner or volunteer working with families can start conversations about parental relationships. This can have an impact on reducing parental conflict.

Conflict between parents is a normal occurrence in all relationships. If conflict is frequent, intense, and poorly resolved, it can be damaging. Children are vulnerable to the impact of conflict whether their parents are:

  • together,
  • apart, or
  • separating.

By understanding the evidence, we can:

  • recognise, identify and support those experiencing destructive conflict
  • reduce its negative impact

Practitioners and volunteers sometimes miss opportunities to intervene early and raise relationship issues. This is because they can lack the confidence, tools and knowledge.

We hope the information and tools will provide inspiration for whole family work. It will allow tailoring to each family’s needs and selecting the parts most useful. The aim is to:

  • work in a solution focused way
  • enable and empower parents to understand their conflict
  • enable them to see how to resolve their issues themselves
  • enable them not to rely on a practitioner for solutions

It is not our job to fix it but to be sharing knowledge. We should give families the tools they need to manage conflict constructively.

The Reducing Parental Conflict toolkit aims to strengthen the workforce to recognise conflict. It aims to help get the right support to parents as early as possible. Intervening early provides an opportunity to help couples before:

  • problems with conflict arise, or
  • problems become entrenched

The toolkit also includes information about local services. These could sign-post families to more specialist support.

Children do better when they feel safe and secure. Exposure to healthy relationships within the home can generate this feeling of well-being. We can all impact improving the health of the relationships of the families we work with.

3. Parental Conflict or Domestic Abuse

This toolkit aims to help identify and support couples with conflict. This conflict is below the threshold of domestic abuse. Disagreements in relationships are normal. They are not problematic when both people feel able to handle and resolve them.

What is Parental Conflict?

Conflict between parents is a normal part of relationships and family life. Parental conflict is generally issue-focused, this is where:

  • parents have differences of opinion or disagreement
  • there continues to be respect and emotional control
  • they can resolve or negotiate a solution

Harmful conflict occurs where:

  • there are greater levels of blaming/personal insults 
  • there is a focus on winning – so a solution is rarely found

Frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict, can cause a negative impact on families.

Parental conflict can mean many things. It can range from loud, angry arguments to non-verbal conflict (the silent treatment). The intensity of conflict may vary. This will have different impact for children depending on:

  • their characteristics
  • background
  • resilience and vulnerability
  • their circumstances

"My parents have always fought, I thought it was normal. They'd scream, my mum would take it out on me and my dad would ignore us. Then they'd make up and it'd be okay again for a while. My dad would be the type to scream and swear in frustration. Then he'd lock himself in his office and sulk, basically. My mum would want to talk everything out." (16-year-old from Uckfield)

Parental conflict can be reflected in a wide range of behaviours, from constructive (helpful) to destructive (harmful) behaviours. Harmful behaviours in a relationship which are frequent, intense and poorly resolved can lead to a lack of respect and a lack of resolution. Behaviours such as shouting, becoming withdrawn or slamming doors can be viewed as destructive. Parental relationship distress is different from domestic abuse. This is because there is not an imbalance of power, neither parent seeks to control the other, and neither parent is fearful of the other.

Department for Work and Pensions

What is Domestic Abuse?

Abuse and conflict are not the same thing. Abuse is not a disagreement. It is the use of the following to govern and influence the other person’s thinking, emotions and behaviour:

  • physical
  • sexual
  • emotional or
  • psychological violence or control

Where there is abuse, there is no discussion between equals.

Abuse has a perpetrator where there is an imbalance of power. There is a pattern of behaviour and or incidents within an interpersonal relationship. A person systematically seeks to control another. They use a range of abusive strategies to create an environment of fear to control their victim. They infuse every aspect of a victim’s life with power imbalance and abuse which can happen at any time. It includes:

  • limiting access to money
  • isolation
  • degradation
  • mind-games
  • monitoring phone calls
  • the micro-regulation of everyday life

Coercive control is the most common form of domestic abuse. Victims can experience abuse without being physically assaulted. But victims that are physically assaulted can also experience coercive control.

A common pattern of domestic abuse, especially between intimate partners, is:

  • the perpetrator alternates between violent, abusive and apologetic behaviour
  • the perpetrator makes heartfelt promises to change
  • the victim holds on to the hope they will change

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 introduced a statutory definition of Domestic Abuse. Having the definition in law ensures that:

  • domestic abuse is properly understood
  • all public agencies are applying a common definition

It emphasises that domestic abuse is not just physical violence. It can also be emotional, controlling or coercive, and economic abuse.

Section 1: Definition of “domestic abuse”

  • This section defines “domestic abuse” for the purposes of this Act.
  • Behaviour of a person (“A”) towards another person (“B”) is “domestic abuse” if –
    1. A and B are each aged 16 or over and are personally connected to each other, and
    2. The behaviour is abusive
  • Behaviour is “abusive” if it consists of any of the following –
    1. Physical or sexual abuse
    2. Violent or threatening behaviour
    3. Controlling or coercive behaviour
    4. Economic abuse
    5. Psychological, emotional or other abuse

It does not matter whether the behaviour consists of a single incident or a course of conduct.

For the first time, children are also now recognised as victims in their own right if they have:

  • witnessed
  • heard, or
  • experienced domestic abuse

Domestic abuse can happen inside and outside the home. It can happen over the phone or online using the internet or social media.  It can happen in any relationship and in any family. It can continue once a relationship is over, including in co-parenting relationships post-separation.

People of all genders can be abused or abusers. Both men and women experience incidents of inter-personal violence and abuse. Women are considerably more likely to experience repeated and severe forms of abuse. This includes sexual violence which results in injury or death.

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone of any:

  • race
  • age
  • sexual orientation
  • religion
  • gender

 It can occur within a range of relationships including:

  • married couples
  • couples living together
  • couples dating

It affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. Some people experience other forms of oppression and discrimination. These people may face further barriers to disclosing abuse and finding help. This could be someone with a disability.

Domestic abuse exists as part of violence against women and girls. This includes different forms of family violence such as:

  • forced marriage
  • female genital mutilation
  • so-called “honour crimes”

These are perpetrated primarily by family members. There are also often multiple perpetrators from the community.

How to work with families

Please click on the link for Parental Relationships Spectrum diagram. This toolkit focuses on the left-hand side of the spectrum, the first three circles.

By having conversations about relationships, we can identify the presence of conflict. There may be some anxiety about distinguishing between domestic abuse and parental conflict.  This is normal as it is a complex subject.  Domestic abuse is not always a clear problem to identify.

All relationships are different. There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ relationship.  However, there are healthy and unhealthy relationships.  Considering rules and norms within a relationship helps us to understand abuse.

Healthy Relationships:

  • Rules and different duties that one or the other partner tends to do

Unhealthy Relationships:

  • Abusive consequences when rules and norms are broken or changed
  • Rules are demanded by one, and adhered to by the other
  • Rules constantly change, and only one person is in control of this
  • Punishment for non-compliance

It can be difficult to identify domestic abuse. Perpetrators can act very differently when other people are around. Many victims fear they won’t be safe after reporting abuse and the disclosure itself is not always safe.  If possible, it is helpful to talk to each parent alone away from their partner. Victims can feel encouraged to reach out when they feel ready and safe to do so.

Some victims may not realise their situation is unhealthy because:

  • they do not have other models for relationships
  • they have gradually become used to the cycle of abuse

We can use the diagrams in this toolkit with families to help them:

  • understand what might be happening in their relationship
  • identify if they are experiencing relationship conflict or abusive relationship

Keep an open mind and be curious and alert to an imbalance of power; or where at least one person feels fear.

All relationships no matter how healthy, have problems, conflicts, and disagreements.  Compare the differences between conflict resolution in a healthy relationship and an unhealthy relationship.  Use the respect wheel: Equality Wheel

If practitioners are vigilant and open to evidence of Domestic Abuse:

  • families can be supported as soon as concerns are identified
  • workers can help reduce the factors that contribute to or exacerbate domestic abuse

Should you identify any concern indicating domestic abuse:

  • you should follow your organisation’s policies and procedures to address domestic abuse
  • the priority should be managing any potential risk of harm.

If a family is in immediate danger from an abuser dial 999.

For more information about domestic abuse, you should discuss with your line manager. You can also discuss with your designated safeguarding lead. They will:

  • support decision-making
  • provide further information or signposting
  • complete a more in-depth assessment and or
  • make a referral to specific specialist services for the parents and or the children

For domestic abuse training see Multi-agency training - ESSCP

Domestic abuse services provide a wide range of information and support including:

  • refuge accommodation
  • helplines
  • outreach support
  • floating support
  • resettlement support
  • specialist children and young people services
  • Domestic Abuse Prevention Advocates
  • drop-in support

Contacting the Single Point of Advice (SPoA)

Domestic Abuse Service Change Grow Live

4. Causes of Conflict

Conflict happens when two people have different perspectives on the same thing. Neither is wrong, they are just seeing different perspectives on the same situation. It is easy to get frustrated when a partner is not seeing a situation the same way as we do.

People disagree about issues common issues to all families, such as:

  • money
  • mental health
  • parenting
  • chores

Specific things can cause conflict in a family. For example, an addiction such as alcoholism. A parent can often use this as a coping mechanism, leading to reoccurring friction.

“My parents fought a lot when I was young (mostly about money). I definitely think it’s affected me in a huge way. It’s funny, I still worry about finances, and it messed up my view on marriage. I don’t think I ever want to be married” (17-year-old from Rother)

Issues cause arguments because we feel out of control. We may feel vulnerable, confused and frustrated. This can affect the way we communicate. Poor communication can then be the springboard into conflict.  Different people respond to the pressure of conflict in different ways.

When people are under stress it is harder to think objectively. It is also harder to see things from the other person’s point of view. We are likely to react in automatic, poorly thought through ways.

There are many factors which can affect parental relationships:

  • Financial and employment pressures
  • Parenting
  • Birth of a child or adoption
  • Education or SEND
  • Housing needs
  • Bereavement
  • Physical or mental health
  • Caring responsibilities

The Department for Work and Pensions, has data on children in workless families. It states they are up to three times more likely to experience damaging parental conflict. Interparental conflict and outcomes for children in the contexts of poverty and economic pressure

We want everyone supporting families to feel comfortable talking about family relationships. In this way, families receive the support they need at an earlier stage, and we can reduce the impact on children.  Understanding and learning how to recognise parents’ distress is key to this.

“My Mum is sad all of the time, they argue a lot, every day” (8-year-old from Crowborough)

When parents live together conflict might present as:

  • low mood
  • negativity
  • withdrawal
  • a change in parenting style

For parents living apart there might be an inability or refusal to communicate. There might also be accusations and prolonged court proceedings. It can be difficult to feel like an effective parent if there is only occasional contact with a child.

As well as looking out for these signs there might be a time when someone will come to us for support. This moment may be subtle – it could be an offhand comment at the end of a session. They might also bring up an unrelated issue in the middle of a conversation.

The most effective way to recognise parents going through conflict is to ask them. Make it part of the initial conversation. Ask about their relationship: “How’s your partner at the moment?” See section on Core Questions for Practitioners for some additional questions. The section Tools - Identifying Conflict, will help to identify parental conflict.

Once someone has opened to us about their relationship it is important to listen. We need to try to help them to improve it.

5. Impact on Children

How do we start a conversation with a parent about potential relationship conflict? – by thinking about the impact on children.

Evidence shows that it can have a negative impact on children when conflict between parents is:

  • frequent
  • intense
  • poorly resolved

It can affect their long-term mental health and future life chances. Early intervention is necessary to support co-parenting couples to resolve conflict. It has the greatest opportunity for successful outcomes. There are traditional parenting interventions such as parenting groups and behaviour management courses. These interventions may have a limited affect where the conflict between parents is not addressed. Why does reducing the impact of parental conflict matter?

Children are more able than we think to pick up on tension between parents, which can make them worry.

“My parents fight a lot and mostly at night. They turn the television up to hide the sound of their fighting.” (7-year-old from Eastbourne)

The parent might know that their relationship is not on the verge of breakdown, but the child does not.  Parental conflict places children at risk of:

  • Negative peer relationships
  • Poorer academic outcomes
  • Earlier involvement with drug or alcohol misuse
  • Lower future employability prospects which can lead to financial difficulties
  • Increased risk of poor mental health in children, and into adulthood
  • Negative impact on emotional development
  • A risk of health difficulties

Destructive conflict can affect children of all ages, but in different ways. Children as young as six months show symptoms of distress. Infants up to the age of five display symptoms such as crying or acting out. Children in middle childhood and adolescence show emotional and behavioural distress.  The impact of parental conflict on children varies and is long-lasting. Relationship behaviours and problems can repeat across the generations.

“Not having experienced healthy relationships impacts on future choices in my own relationships. I did not know what to expect or know what healthy love was.” (A parent from Pevensey Bay)

A warm sibling relationship can buffer children from the impact of a high conflict home. These sibling relationships can suffer with complicated alliances and divisions emerging within families.

“My sister and I have always been very close. This is due to living in such a difficult family environment. My earliest memories are of my parents screaming and fighting. So, we’ve survived together.” (15-year-old from High Weald)



Destructive conflict between parents can negatively impact on children's academic attainment. Children exposed to parental conflict are less likely to come to school ready to learn.

“I stopped doing homework at home because there was nowhere quiet to do it, which really affected my grades.” (13-year-old from Hailsham)

Parental conflict places significant pressure on schools. They have to deal with the consequences of the home environment at school.  There are links between exposure to hostile parental exchanges and behavioural difficulties. These emotional and behavioural difficulties play out in the classroom. They include social and interpersonal problems with peers. 

By understanding the evidence and research around parental conflict:

  • staff are better placed to recognise when it is an issue for a student and their family
  • staff can begin thinking about what support they or other services may be able to offer

Why reducing the impact of parental conflict matters for schools


Parental conflict can affect children’s physical and mental health. This includes:

  • psychological difficulties shown as aggression and conduct disorder
  • anxiety and depression
  • poor attachment
  • withdrawal
  • fearfulness
  • suicidality
  • higher rates of illness and fatigue
  • reduced physical growth
  • impact on nervous and hormonal systems. Parental conflict may also affect child risk-taking behaviours, such as smoking, drug use and early sexual activity

“I remember there being yelling all the time.  It's affected me. I have slight panic attacks or anxiety if someone is shouting or talking in an aggressive manner.” (18-year-old from Polegate)

Conflict between parents is more likely at crucial points in family life, such as:

  • pregnancy
  • having a baby
  • a child starting or changing school
  • separation and divorce

Relationship difficulties are often seen as a private matter. Couples may only seek help when in crisis. Front-line practitioners in health services may lack the confidence and tools. They may also lack the knowledge to raise relationship issues with parents. They then miss opportunities to identify and support families earlier.

Why reducing parental conflict matters for the NHS

Anyone working in education and health settings can help improve outcomes for children. All practitioners have a part in helping children exposed to destructive parental conflict.


How do we recognise the Impact?

In a child we would typically see different sorts of behaviours.

1. Externalising behaviours, such as being aggressive and acting disruptive:

  • becoming aggressive towards others
  • starting to make trouble
  • struggling to socialise
  • getting into trouble at school
  • being excluded
  • missing from home
  • becoming known to youth justice services
  • causing neighbourhood nuisance

2. Internalising behaviours, which manifest as sad, withdrawn, or anxious. They could also manifest as depressed and result in self-harming behaviours:

  • internalising their feelings
  • withdrawing from surroundings and friends
  • less engaged with their environment
  • being quiet and withdrawn
  • coming to the attention of the children’s mental health services

3. Parent-child, where the child seeks to take on the role of an adult, providing emotional support. Acting as a ‘parent child’:

  • taking responsibility for things that should be that of the parent
  • trying to mend rifts between parents
  • attempting to make things better

4. Camouflage, where the child is very quiet and staying still. They make themselves as unobtrusive as possible. Workers commonly miss these subtler signs of child distress. The child presents behaviour designed to avoid notice:

  • looking ‘happy’ on the surface
  • children continue playing appearing unbothered in police presence
  • behaviours that help them to “fly under the radar”
  • avoiding drawing parents’ attention or anger to themselves

Constructive Conflict

Children may be less troubled by conflict when parents are able to resolve an argument. However, ‘resolution’ needs to be genuine. Parents can’t fool children by:

  • telling them they sorted things out but
  • failing to demonstrate they have repaired the relationship.

Parents’ actions need to echo their words. Children learn helpful skills from arguments that:

  • involve finding a solution
  • show compromise and healthy negotiation

“What was good, after hearing my parents fight, was hearing them make up. After a big argument, they would explain what happened and what would be changing. Then we all hugged! It was always really good to see that.” (Parent from Heathfield)

It can be emotionally difficult to help a parent understand the impact of their conflict.  This understanding, held in mind, acts as a strong intrinsic motivator for change.

All families have misunderstandings, arguments and communication breakdowns. We call such a breakdown a rupture. After a rupture, reconnecting is essential. We can call this reconnection a repair.  If parents take responsibility to repair the rupture in front of their child:

  • they learn that reconnection after rupture is possible
  • they learn how to do it

“I don't think a kid should grow up thinking that people always get along without problems. Kids should definitely be exposed to healthy debate, compromise, etc.  If you argue in front of your kids, make sure you resolve it in front of them too. Don't wait until they've gone to bed. Show them that you forgive and love each other.” (A Parent from Bexhill)

Repair is a process that goes further than just apologising:

  • Forgiveness after an apology
  • Acknowledgment of hurt caused
  • Naming what happened
  • Seeing the impact on each person (including listening to the other’s version of the event)
  • Consider together how the rupture was co-created
  • Exploring a way forward in the relationship

Children then take responsibility for their words and actions that negatively impact others. They are also better able to assert and hold boundaries.

6. Impact on Parenting

It is normal for poor communication between a couple to impact on how they parent together.  It is challenging to parent well when experiencing conflict with the co-parent.

“My son’s behaviours started to come between me and my partner. We would argue over discipline mainly. How I wasn’t doing enough to discipline. Or how I wasn’t happy with the way he would discipline.  Our communication between each other was awful.” (A parent from Battle)

Many parents use up their emotional energy on:

  • thinking about
  • taking part in or
  • avoiding the conflict

This makes them become less emotionally available. This can impact their parenting in a number of ways:

Emotionally unavailable: when conflict consumes or distracts a parent.  It takes up head-space which leaves them less energy to meet their child’s emotional needs.

Compensating: when a parent knows there is a difficult negative atmosphere they over-compensate. They are lenient, relax rules, give gifts etc.

Harsh: conflict is stressful, so it is normal to have a lower tolerance for misbehaviour. A parent may become harsher or stricter in their parenting style.

Lazy: a parent may feel overwhelmed so they may not complete simple parenting tasks. They may ‘let things go’ more.

Controlling: where a parent lacks relationship control, they may seek control elsewhere. They can restore some sense of control in parenting by:

  • being over controlling and
  • micro-managing children

Blaming: at times of conflict a parent may look for someone to blame, which may include their child. A parent wants to place blame on others to absolve themselves.

The family stress model shows:

  • In the first circle that pressure from health, finance and housing causes parental distress
  • The next two circles show these lead to both parents in psychological distress
  • The next circle shows that the parents distress leads to parental conflict between them
  • The next two circles explains when the parental conflict is the main cause of poor parentings fixing the parenting issue alone is unlikely to be effective. The interparental relationship needs to be addressed.

Parents are at increased risk of anxiety and depression when there are stressful worries in a family like:

  • money
  • housing
  • health problems

The parent’s emotional distress then leads to an increase in conflict. This conflict increases the likelihood of harsh or inconsistent parenting.

Harsh parentings can increase risk of negative outcomes for children. These include anxiety, difficult behaviour, health issues and educational attainment.

7. Working with Children

The voice of the child is the active involvement of children and young people. It is more than practitioners simply seeking their views.  It is asking children and young people about their life and their daily lived experience. Practitioners then need to plan work accordingly.

This also involves helping others understand the impact conflict has on their life. Including:

  • parents
  • carers
  • other professionals 

“They argue all the time, in the car, over dinner, it’s horrible. It just hurts that they are so unhappy.” (10-year-old from Robertsbridge)

When working with children confidentiality cannot be absolute. Safeguarding procedures must always be followed. Children may want to share non-concerning information (from a safeguarding perspective). They may not want this information fed back.

There are lots of ways to help a child to talk about:

  • what parental conflict is like for them 
  • what they would like to change

It can be helpful to use tools where they draw or write more freely. This can be more effective than direct conversation:  Three Houses, Life Paths or Faces. These types of assessment resources can be found on the internet:

Or, if you work for East Sussex County Council you can access the 'Direct work with children toolkit' which is available on the Council's intranet.

“Mummy and daddy were both shouting, and I need some space.” (5-year-old from Hastings)

Children are often anxious talking about their parents.  They worry they’ll get them into trouble. It can be helpful to find an age-appropriate way to explain to children that we are there to help their family. We can reassure children that what they say matters. We can reassure them that their feelings are important.

Some common practitioner worries are:

  • How might the parents react when I speak to them?
  • Will this add to the existing conflict in the home?
  • Will the child feel guilty about what they have said?
  • Will the child worry about consequences?

Parents may feel embarrassed or be in denial about what their child shares. Many parents are already aware the environment is not good for their child. They may not want to acknowledge the impact because of the parental behaviour and conflict. Every family will react differently. Parents experiencing conflict can find it difficult to:

  • talk with their children 
  • listen to what they have to say

Practitioners can support children to tell their story. They can support them to share their thoughts and feelings.

 A worker can:

  • help parents have a conversation in a safe and focused way 
  • encourage the parent to consider their children’s feelings about the situation at home

Sharing the child’s voice with parents impacts the parental behaviour. Parents in conflict may be hearing it for the first time. This can be an extremely powerful, pivotal moment. This can kickstart the cycle of change.

“Make changes because you want to make the relationship between you and your partner better. Not just for you but also for your children because it also affects them. That’s not something that you would like to go through, because the way it affects your children is really upsetting.” (Parent from Seaford)

8. Working with Parents

Principles of working with Parents

We have a responsibility, when noticing parental conflict, to act through ‘early involvement’. This is with the aim of preventing the conflict escalating.  We are not relationship counsellors.  We can, however, help parents argue in a way that reduces impact on their children. 

Connected Practice is a methodology that supports practitioners. They create change through meaningful and helpful relationships with children and families. Workers can achieve this with a good understanding of trauma, attachment and risk. Evidence-based approaches underpin this. The evidence-based practice could include solution focused work, motivational interviewing and relationship-based practice.  To find out more information about working with families:

Contact your local training support East Sussex Safeguarding Children Partnership

We believe that families can make positive changes with the help of their:

  • strengths,
  • networks, and
  • skills

This underpins Connected Practice. So as part of our work we can ask families:

What are the strengths that we can harness within this family to create positive change?

Below are some ways of having conversations with parents:

The Approach:

  • Preparedness – e.g. Is English the first language? Is another communication method needed?
  • What is the right environment?
  • How do we start the conversation?
  • What will your opening question be?
  • How will you be fair to the parent who is not in the room?
  • How can you avoid taking sides?
  • Be mindful of confirmatory bias i.e. making our mind up early and seeking for confirmation that we are right
  • How do we get real agreement for out next steps or plan?
  • Keeping the couple focused on the task in hand - parenting

Active Listening:

  • Pay attention – undivided attention and acknowledge the message. Recognise that non-verbal communication also ‘speaks’ loudly
  • Showing you are listening – use own body language and gestures to show engagement
  • Provide feedback – our personal filters can distort what we hear. So can our assumptions, judgements and beliefs. Our role is to understand what is being said and to ask questions
  • Defer judgement – interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message
  • Respond appropriately – active listening should encourage respect and understanding. We are gaining information and perspective. We add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting them down.

Professional Curiosity

A whole family approach to work with children and adults and their families is essential. When talking to families we can take opportunities to see, feel and recognise risk. We can then enquire deeper.  Being open minded helps to make an informed decision about the families lived experience.  Curious professionals engage with individuals and families through:

  • visits
  • conversations
  • observations 
  • asking relevant questions to gather historical and current information

Professional curiosity is exploring and understanding what is happening within a family. It is not making assumptions or accepting things at face value.  We can describe this as practising ‘respectful uncertainty’. We can apply critical evaluation to any information we receive.

Professional curiosity is an essential part of safeguarding. Nurturing it is a fundamental aspect of working together to keep 

  • children,
  • young people and
  • adults safe.

Practitioners might need to think ‘outside the box’ and consider families circumstances holistically.

It means triangulating information from different sources. We then gain a better understanding of family functioning. This in turn helps to make predictions about what is likely to happen in the future. It means seeing past the obvious.

Practitioners need to be brave. They have what are often difficult conversations about the issues affecting families.

We need to be self-aware in our practice. We need to be aware of our own values without letting them influence decision-making. Practitioners should practice in a way that is a non-judgemental and anti-discriminatory.

Barriers to curiosity:

  • Losing focus on the child through over-identifying with carers
  • Over-optimism
  • Making assumptions
  • Being afraid to raise concerns or question families
  • Time constraints (e.g., due to workload)
  • Lacking the confidence or assertiveness to ask sensitive questions
  • Unconscious bias
  • Recognise how our own feelings might impact on our view of a child or family on a given day. For example, feeling tired, rushed or unwell.

 For courses on these approaches see the East Sussex Safeguarding Childrens Partnership

9. Different types of Parenting Relationships

Any family can experience conflict. The techniques to address destructive conflict are applicable to all relationship types:

  • Parents in a relationship with each other, whether married or not
  • Separated or divorced parents
  • Same sex families
  • Blended or Stepfamilies
  • Extended families
  • Foster and Adoptive parents
  • Grandparent families

“After the initial upheaval, things have got a bit better. New challenges come and we take them on. The main challenge is still the financial demands of bringing up a child on my own with just my pension.” (Kinship Care parent from Eastbourne)

10. What causes conflict for New Parents

Having a baby can be an exciting time, particularly for first-time parents. However, it can mean new pressures on relationships.

“We could go days with hardly speaking and having very little sleep, until (usually me) would just blow and every single thing I had been keeping in for the last few days and weeks would come out.” (Parent from Lewes)

A new baby can be demanding during the first year. Feeling tired, stressed and worried means it is easy to take it out on each other.  Adjusting takes time and conflict can be a normal part of this.

“67% of new parents report a sharp drop in relationship satisfaction in the first three years of a child’s life.” (Gottman 2005)

Arguing is a normal part of being parents but how we argue can make a difference to a baby’s wellbeing.  It is helpful to understand the stressors so we can learn how to deal with them in a healthy way. There are many different topics that might cause arguments after we have a child:

  • Practical Support
  • Feeling that your relationship is side-lined
  • Different parenting styles
  • Going back to work
  • Interference from other family members
  • Missing our old life
  • Perinatal and postnatal depression
  • Sleep deprivation

What could help? Top Ten Tips

  1. Having realistic expectations: we are both doing the best we can
  2. Getting enough sleep: sleeping when the baby is asleep
  3. Supporting each other practically: talking and agreeing a plan, working as a team
  4. Talking about expectations: sharing views on parenting and how we want things to work
  5. Resolving arguments together: being open about feelings and avoid misunderstandings
  6. Scheduling time together: quality time is important to support couple relationship
  7. Joining a parenting group: they can help us feel like we are not alone
  8. Talking to your Midwife/Health Visitor. They understand signs of issues like postnatal depression. They will refer onwards if you need further help
  9. Agreeing to manage visitors: asking for help when they do come over
  10. Understanding this will pass: the intensity of looking after a baby will ease

Think of stress as a balance. When we have ways of coping, it can be easier to manage. When the causes of stress outweigh our ways of coping, it can all feel too much.  Encourage parents to think of their stress as shared. Stress is something to deal with together rather than from an individual perspective. This is an effective way of improving relationship quality and stability.

ICON is a useful resource for helping parents cope with crying. ICON stands for:

  • Infant crying is normal
  • Comforting methods can help
  • It's OK to walk away
  • Never, ever shake a baby

ICON - Babies cry you can cope  

Advice and support: See Tools section for activities to use with parents of new-borns. These activities will help them manage expectations and realities.

11. Engaging with Fathers and Non-birth Parents

Why is it important?

Where relationships are in destructive conflict, both parents matter.  Many practitioners have closer connections with mothers. Often a father’s input is not valued as much as it should be.

We know it is important for fathers to play an active role in a child’s upbringing. Unless of course they are a risk to their child’s safety. Research supports that fathers and male carers have significant impact on:

  • early development
  • play
  • modelling
  • later development including education and behaviour
  • personal & family development including self-esteem and social skills

Separated Parents

80% of children of separated parents live exclusively or mainly with their mothers.

 Child contact with non-resident parents

When a relationship breaks down it, a Mother may block the relationship with the father.  She may decide it will be toxic for the child to see the father or non-birth partner. This is called Maternal Gatekeeping.  Mums may:

  • tell us that Dad chooses not to be involved
  • say that he will not engage
  • request that the practitioner does not involve him

There may be good reasons for this. However, we should base such decisions on evidence, not hearsay.  Just because the adult relationship is unhealthy it does not mean the father child one will be.  Avoid making assumptions – check the information and make a conscious decision.

Practitioners can encourage a parent who is gatekeeping to recognise that

  • the distance may be helping them, but
  • it is not what is best for the child.

What are the barriers?

Assumptions, prejudices and personal history may influence our view of fathers:

  • Is there a culture in your team of only working with Mums?
  • Might you have any unconscious bias based on your own lived experience?
  • Consider how our own experience of our own father or partner influences out practice
  • Are you fearful of engaging with Dads based on what you know or have read about him?

“I was made to feel that my views didn’t matter. I was made to feel I didn’t care about what was going on with my child. Yet I do.” (parent from Newhaven)

Some fathers have specific needs if they are to play a positive part in the lives of their families:

  • Young fathers
  • Non-resident fathers
  • Fathers in prison
  • Lone Fathers
  • Gay or minority ethnic fathers
  • Fathers who hurt others

Strategies that could help engage Fathers

  • Present the father’s engagement from the start as expected and important
  • Practitioners proactively seek men out. They explain why they want to meet and acknowledge their role as a parent or carer. They recognise the father’s expert knowledge about their child and family
  • Practitioners engage with men’s versions of events in an open and exploratory way
  • Fathers who do not participate are followed up
  • Any interventions or support is as much for Dads and Mums
  • Include Fathers who do not live with their children full-time whenever possible

Working with Couples

Practitioners should be confident when working with the couple relationship. Practitioners need the skills to work with both parents while remaining focused on the needs of the child.  Couple work can illicit very daunting and powerful feelings in the practitioner. It can leave them lacking in confidence to work with ‘warring’ parents.

We are not couple counsellors. We can help parents to argue well by using the information and tools in this toolkit.

“We worked out ways we can communicate better. We learnt how the other person feels in the relationship. It’s not something that you change once, and it’s done and dusted.  You learn the skills and you have to go away and continue to work at it.” (Parents from Peacehaven)

Below is a link to a guide to help practitioners working with co-parents 

12. Parents of children with additional needs

All relationships undergo change, challenge, and experience strain from time to time. Parents who have a child with additional needs face added pressure.  It can have impact finances, time together, mental health and isolation.  It is difficult to adjust to new roles and parents may have different expectations.

A Relate report (2017) found that parents of a child with a learning disability were:

  • more likely to experience lower relationship quality
  • over a third of parents were in distressed relationships
  • they were more likely to be in distressed relationships than other parents
  • 34% in distressed relationships compared to 26% of other parents

The way we are now

“The main cause of our conflict was parenting my son who has a diagnosis of autism, as well as us being a blended family. Even when you think the arguing is quiet and the kids are sleeping, they are awake, listening, wondering what is going on.” (a Parent from Hastings)

Relationship support may be low priority for families on waiting lists for:

  • assessment
  • identification of needs
  • support

Practitioners can use skills-based interventions that support communication. They can help parents in destructive conflict recognise their own emotional need. They can help them to parent together prioritising their child’s needs.

13. Separated and Divorced Parents

The level of conflict before the breakdown determines the impact on children. Research shows this is greater than the impact of the breakdown itself.

Relationship Communication Skills after separation

Poor communication and negotiation skills contribute to relationship problems after separation. Lack of trust is also a factor. Past hurt, emotions, and power struggles can amplify this. Continuing conflict damages the ability of children to:

  • adjust to divorce
  • maintain secure and loving relationships with both parents

“My Mum hates everything about “her ex,” but he’s still my Dad - Don’t say mean things about my other parent. I want to love you both!” (11-year-old from St Leonards)

Divorced or separated couples need to understand how to communicate with each other.  They need to respect each other’s needs and opinions. This will help to develop an effective co-parenting relationship. It will also mean that both parents are better able to meet the needs of their children in coming years.

Assertive Communication

Communicating assertively is important in a healthy co-parenting relationship. Parents need to be able to discuss issues relating to their children.

If we want to change someone else’s behaviour, we must first look at our own.

Separated parents often comment ‘it’s my ex-partner who needs to change, not me.’  We may feel that way, but we are not able to control someone else’s behaviour. What we can control is how we respond and behave. Changing the way we behave can bring about changes in other people’s behaviour.

Guidelines in using assertive communication with a co-parent:

  1. Always respect the rights and point of view of the other person
  2. Problem-solve together to generate possible solutions. Focus on what is in the best interests of the children, rather than individual parents
  3. Be flexible. Compromise where possible to that both parents are satisfied with the outcome

It may not be possible to discuss child-related issues in person without hostility. Consider alternative means of communication such as emails, texts, or telephone calls.

There are ways to improve our co-parenting relationship:

  • See the situation through the child’s eyes. Children want to feel loved, safe and to spend time with their parents. Children are the priority
  • The relationship has now shifted into something different. Previous ways of interacting with our ex may no longer be appropriate. This requires the development of a new business-like relationship as co-parents. We have to let go of the romantic relationship
  • We have no say over how our ex decides to live, letting go of the need to control what happens in our absence can help. Developing and implementing a parenting plan can reduce conflict around parenting issues. Children cope best when parents have similar expectations and household rules. Parents need to share information readily
  • It can be hard not to see our children as often but using that time to practice self-care is beneficial

14. Parental Conflict and Social Media

There is exposure today to more social media than ever before. Social networking can affect many different aspects of life. These include work, education, friendships, and relationships.


  • The reduction in face-to-face interaction can lead to misunderstandings and upset feelings
  • Increased use of social media can have a negative effect on relationships – including infidelity, conflicts, jealousy
  • People share their best lives on social media. This can create unhealthy comparisons and unrealistic expectations
  • People feel compelled to check their phone multiple times a day. This can be detrimental to family relationships. The time we spend on social media is time taken away from our children

Young people:

  • Excessive use can be damaging to children who are not emotionally developed
  • There are links between social media and poor body image and depression

Positives of Social Media

  1. It can keep us connected to our partner and family. Social media is an easy way to interact in a fun, low-pressure manner
  2. We can learn about relationships from experts. There is good information from relationship bloggers, psychotherapists, and many others. It can motivate us to work on parts of the relationships that are struggling
  3. It’s a time capsule of memories. Social media has replaced printed photograph albums for storing and sharing our memories
  4. Maintaining healthy communication among family members. It supports wellbeing of everyone in the family. Social media has created a new way of connecting to wider family and friends

How to maintain a healthy balance between social networking and family relationships

Consider establishing a few ground rules. This will avoid any potential dangers of social media affecting the family relationships:

  1. Put on controls that will limit time on social media. This limits isolation and over-exposure to information harmful to health
  2. Use social media to obtain helpful information or stay connected to relatives. Don’t use it just to scroll through other people’s daily lives
  3. Spend more time with family rather than a smartphone
  4. Have a good balance between social networking and real-life communication. Spend time nurturing relationships

“My parents’ relationship is very up and down. I’d change the fact that my Mum’s on her phone a lot and my Dad’s on his computer a lot.” (9-year-old from Rotherfield)

Research shows that sharing too much decreases the quality of real-life relationships. Social media and mental health  A study with 508 Facebook users found:

  • that sharing too many selfies lead to a decrease in intimacy in relationship
  • that a certain level of censorship is necessary. Don’t alienate your co-parent by your online behaviour

Social media information and support for parents and young people:

Apps guide for parents

CEOP Safety Centre

Tips and Advice Young Minds

15. Supervision

Supervision gives dedicated time and space to reflect on practice.  It enables practitioners to think about their practice, knowledge, skills and decision-making. It supports development of practitioner confidence and consistency of practice.  It can identify barriers or learning needs.

 What are the challenges practitioners may feel about working with parental conflict?

  • It’s not my responsibility; my place; my job; my business
  • The trigger is a taboo or too sensitive
  • I’m not confident or competent to handle the topic
  • I’m scared it will get out of control or be made worse
  • I’m not comfortable delving that deep into someone else’s relationship
  • I only have a relationship with one parent, so not confident I have a full story
  • I don’t want to destroy the relationship I have already with the parent(s)
  • I am scared to engage because it might be volatile
  • The circumstances are too close to my own situation
  • I don’t have the time to do the conversation justice
  • I know the family too well to be detached and unbiased
  • I am too focused on the child’s well-being to have space for the parents

As a practitioner we should be aware of our own fears. Many of us have previous experience that will affect our response to conflict. Use supervision to discuss those fears.  Understanding our responses will help us become more emotionally aware.  It may help us to understand our feelings about parent’s conflict and behaviours.

Helpful questions to use in supervision:

What happened? Description:

  • What, where and when?
  • Who did or said what?
  • What did you do or see or hear?
  • In what order did things happen?
  • What were the circumstances?
  • What were you responsible for?

What were you thinking about? Feelings:

  • What was your initial reaction, what did this tell you?
  • Did your feelings change?
  • What were you thinking?

What was good or bad about the experience? Evaluation:

  • What pleased or interested you?
  • What made you unhappy?
  • What difficulties were there?
  • Who or what was unhelpful? Why?
  • What needs improvement?

What sense can you make of the situation? Analysis:

  • Compare theory and practice
  • What similarities and differences are there between this experience and other experiences?
  • Think about what actually happened
  • What choices did you make?
  • What effect did they have?

What else could you have done? Conclusion:

  • What have you learnt for the future?
  • What else could you have done?

What will you do next time? Action Plan:

  • If a similar situation arose again, what would you do?

Supervision is important to support, develop and challenge practitioners.  It questions their decision-making and develops their professional curiosity. They can then distinguish between parental conflict and domestic abuse.

16. Signposting

Support services commonly available to address parental conflict include:

  • Relationship counselling and therapy
  • Marriage and relationship education, including new parenthood programmes
  • Family mediation and legal support, including in-court conciliation and Cafcass
  • Online information and advice

Some services are not explicitly defined as ‘relationship support’. They focus more broadly on supporting families and aspects of family life, including:

  • Child and family support services, such as Early Help, Social Care, or Children’s Centres
  • Parenting programmes
  • Health services. These include GP’s and practice nurses, midwives or health visitors. They also include mental health services.
  • Schools, through sex and relationship education and pastoral support school counselling

Some support involves practitioners working directly with families. There are also online services that provide information and advice. These allow parents to ‘self-help’ without the involvement of a practitioner.

Useful links

Below are links that you may want to signpost or refer to:

  • further resources
  • information
  • advice
  • support
  • services

They are listed by topic areas and include national and local links.

Animation to show to parents to explain the impact of Parental Conflict ‘Healthy Relationships – Reducing Parental Conflict animation (Pan Sussex): Reducing Parental Conflict animation

Reducing Parental Conflict Evidence and Research:

Commissioners guide to reducing parental conflict

Reducing parental conflict hub

This hub provides a central place of ‘what works’ evidence and tools. It includes why parental conflict matters for children’s outcomes. It also has guidance on how to take action. The hub will continue to grow as new evidence and tools are created.

Reducing Parental Conflict programme and resources

Information and resources for leaders, managers and practitioners. This helps to reduce the impact of potentially damaging inter-parental conflict on children.

Relationship Support

One Plus One 

Website with evidence-based resources to support the development of healthy relationships.


Services include:

Relationship Counselling, Family CounsellingMediationChildren and Young People's Counselling and Sex Therapy. A network of Relate Centres as well as phoneemail and Live Chat counselling. The relationship help pages offer practical tips, guides, and videos.  These help manage common relationship issues.

Marriage Care

A national charity, specialising in adult couple relationships

Citizens Advice - family

A national charity and network of local charities. They offer confidential advice online, over the phone, and in person, for free.

Mediation East Sussex

Helping people to resolve conflict. We facilitate positive, constructive discussions. We enable people to hear one another and to resolve their differences.

Click Relationships

Relationship support from experts and the community

Getting on Better Cards

Relationship experts OnePlusOne developed this pack of 8 self-help cards. They worked in partnership with Brighton & Hove City Council.

A website offering peer to peer support and advice for Dads

The Fatherhood Institute

A charity that raises the profile of ‘involved fatherhood’

Tavistock Relationships

A charity for advanced practice, training, and research to support couples, individuals, and families.

Between Us App designed to help you have a better relationship with your partner now or in the future.

A website with support for parents with parenting and relationship issues

Separated Parents


Cafcass stands for Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.  Cafcass represents children in family court cases in England. We independently advise the family courts about what is safe for children. We also consider what is in their best interests.

Domestic Abuse - Local

Domestic Abuse Service Change Grow Live

Contacting the Single Point of Advice (SPoA)

Multi-agency risk assessment conference

Independent Domestic Violence Advisor service

Domestic Abuse - National

Karma Nirvana

National Honour Based Abuse and forced marriage helpline and support

Refuge National Domestic Abuse Helpline

Support for women fleeing domestic abuse. Support to find specialist services in your community

National LGBT Domestic Abuse Helpline

Galop run the National LGBT Domestic Abuse Helpline. This offers emotional and practical support for LGBT people experiencing Domestic Abuse


Working with perpetrators, male victims and young people using violence and abuse

Women's Aid

National charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. 

Bright Sky is a free app.  It enables the identification of all your local domestic abuse services

Reducing Parental Conflict videos

Working with children

Direct work with children toolkit 

This is a resource within Single Source. This is for practitioners who work within East Sussex County Council

Freely available resources on the internet. This supports gaining the child’s voice within assessments

Part Two - Framework and Tools

17. Framework and Approach

A basic framework for this work is:

  • Step 1 = identifying parents’ conflict
  • Step 2 = exploring the cause of conflict, so the family understand it better
  • Step 3 = supporting constructive communication and find alternative ways of managing the conflict

This approach enables workers to be mindful of the purpose of the conversation.  They can feel confident when initiating a discussion and then a process to get the answers they need.

How do we start a conversation with a parent about potential relationship conflict? – thinking about the impact of parental conflict on children.

Tools for working with parents in conflict

The tools in this toolkit are for use with parents.

Stage One – Identifying parental conflict

  • Genogram – a picture of a person’s family history and relationships. This can show historical family patterns
  • Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This model describes the destructive behaviours used in distressed relationships
  • Relationship Scales. Use this to explore how each parent rates their situation on a scale from happy to distressed. This can highlight differences in how they are experiencing their relationship
  • Stages of a relationship – this model shows how relationships evolve over time. It helps to ‘normalise’ the difficult phases and reminds them that things can get better. It is often during the transition between these stages that conflict occurs

Stage Two – Exploring the causes of the conflict

  • What’s going on for us? (Vulnerability Stress Adaption Model) – parents can understand the connection between stressful life events and their past histories. It links these to the methods they use to cope with stress or conflict
  • Thoughts, Feelings, Behaviour – this model help couples to recognise how they internalise observed behaviour. This in turn affects how they feel, impacting on their response. This can help couples understand each other’s behaviour
  • Our typical day – identifies how the family see their typical day and the key stressful points

Stage Three – Supporting constructive communication

  • Constructive vs Destructive – these cards can identify the destructive elements of their behaviour
  • Getting on Better Cards – support parents to think about their relationship in a new way. Ideas on how to reduce tension and arguments and improve communication
  • I Statements – couples recognise helpful and harmful ways of beginning a conversation
  • Children in the middle - helping parents to identify how they may be putting children in the middle. This is the first step in encouraging change
  • Problem-solving, a step-by-step way of finding solutions to problems. Meets the needs of both people concerned
  • Conflict Management Styles – a model to help understand reactions to conflict and how we deal with it
  • Hopes and dreams for our new baby - thinking about what each of you dream of for your child and planning for the future
  • My week, your week - This 7-day diary is to help co-parents see each other’s perspective. They can understand changing roles following the arrival of a new baby

18. Core Questions for Practitioners

These are some core questions that are worth trying to remember. They are always useful if we have an opportunity to talk to a couple or person about their relationship. Think of them as a first aid kit, there when we need to respond quickly to a conflict situation.

  1. If you felt like your relationship was in a better place, what would be different?
  2. What would you both need to do differently to get there?
  3. What might get in the way of you making these changes?
  4. How could you help each other overcome these barriers?

19. Tools - Identifying Conflict


A genogram is a picture of a person’s family history and relationships. It is a creative tool to discuss the strength and quality of relationships.  It is a useful assessment tool. It can help parents understand the historical family patterns. These patterns might impact behaviours and relationships.

  • Map family and other significant relationships
  • Think about life stages and transitions
  • Understand why a particular issue is significant now
  • Identify resources within the family’s life

The genogram allows a practitioner to examine the family structure in detail.  It captures relevant information related to the quality and characterisation of relationships. A genogram becomes most valuable when it includes information about several generations.

The family and practitioner capture this information together. They can then explore the ways in which family processes play out across generations.  Patterns that are hard to recognise seem to jump out once we map them on paper.  Genograms provide a way for us to examine these patterns.

We can also use the genogram as an intervention tool. The act of creating the genogram itself has therapeutic benefits for families.  Developing a genogram with a family also places them as experts in their own situation.

Genograms assist practitioners in understanding:

  • the origins of family behaviours
  • the sources of presenting problems

A genogram is a pictorial family tree. Each individual is represented by a circle with their age written in the centre. Lines between the individuals shows their relationship: Grandparent, aunt, uncle, parent or sibling. If a person has died, their date of death is included.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The model is based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse used by Dr Gottman. It describes the destructive behaviours used by co-parents in distressed relationships.

Negativity within relationships develops from a pattern of destructive communication. Inability to break this negative cycle this can often lead to emotional and physical separation. The model of the four horsemen shows them on a spiral staircase. Each of the four horsemen builds to make a destructive cycle of behaviour.

These specific behaviours are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling
  1. Criticism – verbally attaching personality or character

When you criticise your partner, you are implying that there is something wrong with them. You have taken a problem between you and put it inside your partner’s body. Using the words: “You always” or “You never” are common ways to criticise. Your partner is most likely to feel under attack and respond defensively. This is a dangerous pattern to get into. Neither person feels heard. Both may begin to feel negatively about themselves, in the presence of the other.

Being critical makes the other person feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt. This pattern can quickly escalate and become more frequent and intense. It then leads to contempt; “You always talk about yourself, why are you so selfish?”

The antidote to criticism = make a direct complaint that is not a global attack on your partner’s personality. Think about how you could communicate without involving blame in what you say. Own your feelings and think about how you are going to communicate … what do I feel? What do I need? “I’m feeling left out of the talk tonight, and I need to vent”

2. Contempt – attaching sense of self with an intent to assault or abuse

Treating another person with contempt is to be unkind. Contempt: Any statement or nonverbal behaviour that puts yourself on a higher ground. Examples of contempt:

  • mocking your partner
  • calling them names
  • rolling your eyes
  • dismissing them
  • sneering in disgust

Of all the horsemen, contempt is the most serious; “You forgot to do the dishes again (eye roll) you are so flippin’ lazy!”

The antidote to contempt= 

Couples understand that these put-downs will destroy the fondness and admiration between them. Try to see a more positive perspective and do not just focus on things the other person does to push your buttons. Small acts of appreciation towards one another helps to change your perspective. Instead of always negative appreciate the positive behaviours, however small.  Work on appreciation to reduce, repair, and eliminate contemptuous exchanges. “I understand that you’ve been busy lately, but could you please remember to do the dishes when I work late? I’d appreciate it”

3. Defensiveness – victimising yourself to ward off a perceived attack and reverse the blame

 You are being defensive when:

  • you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter-complaint
  • you behave like an innocent victim

Unfortunately, defensiveness keeps partners from taking responsibility for problems and escalates negative communication. Even if your partner is criticising you, defensiveness is a negative behaviour. It will only fuel a bad exchange. “It’s not my fault that we are going to be late, it’s your fault for always getting ready at the last minute!”

The antidote to defensiveness =

Try to hear your partner’s complaint and to take some responsibility for your part in the situation. Stop appointing blame. Be mature enough to recognise your contribution to the situation. “I don’t like being late, but you’re right. We don’t always have to be early. I can be a little more chilled”.

4. Stonewalling – withdrawing to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance, and separation

Stonewalling is usually a response to contempt. The listener withdraws from the conversation and stops responding to their partner.

Rather than confronting the issues, people can take evasive actions such as:

  • tuning out
  • turning away
  • acting busy
  • engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviours
  • they might physically leave

This may look like they don’t care, but that usually isn’t the case. Typically, they are overwhelmed and are trying to calm themselves. Unfortunately, this seldom works. The partner is likely to assume they don’t care enough about the problem to talk about it.  It can be a vicious circle. One person is demanding to talk and the other looking for an escape; “Look we’ve been through this load of times, I’m tired of reminding you!”

The antidote =

 Learn to identify the signs of starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed. Agree together to take a break or time out. If you still need to discuss the problem, then pick it up when you are calmer.

Having time away from a toxic discussion offers you the opportunity to decompress. You see things differently. Try to see walking away from a disagreement as a strategy and not rudeness. You can see things more clearly and behave more calmly. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed, and I need to take a break. Can you give me twenty minutes and then we can talk?”

Useful links to videos about The Four Horseman by The Gottman Institute

Spotting similar examples can help show that the parental relationship is in conflict. Highlighting their behaviours which may exacerbate their conflict can help them. They recognise what is happening and break the cycle.

Relationship Scales

Scaling questions are very helpful when talking about relationships. They ask parents how they would rate their relationship on the scale. This can be the numbers on a line on a scale from 1 to 10, or Happy to Distressed.

This can highlight differences in how both parents are feeling about their relationship. This can be a useful starting point for conversations between them. It can also be an introduction to a discussion about the impact of parental conflict on children.

Using this scale will encourage an honest discussion between parents. It will identify changes needed to make their relationship more harmonious and consistent.

Solution focused questions are useful to help parents think about:

  • where they are now and where they would like to be
  • how they have coped with challenging times in the past
  • how they might find their way back to being okay in the future.

By using solution focused questions, we are:

  • stopping a dependency from forming
  • giving families the skills they need to find their own way forward and create resilience

Here are some examples of solution-focused questions:

  • How would things look if it were better?
  • What would be happening?
  • What would have to change?
  • What would you and your partner be doing differently?
  • What would you be thinking or feeling?
  • What might get in the way?
  • When you have fallen out before, what helped you to make it up?

You may choose to re-visit the scale with parents as you work with them to:

  • identify positive change
  • measure progress
  • identify further work that needs to be undertaken

Stages of a Relationship

All relationships have distinct stages they pass through. It is the way in which partners deal with the challenges presented across time. This then determines the overall quality of their relationship. The stages of a relationship are shown as a staircase. The first step is the largest at the base - romance. The steps get smaller as they go up to number six - respect and understanding. The number of people in relationships declines as they progress through the stages.

This is totally normal. Relationships develop over time. We build strength and resilience by working through these stages’ multiple times.  So, what we perceive to be bad at the time can turn out to be good for our relationship in the long term.

Romance: The start of the story

The story of your relationship can begin in many ways:

  • an arranged marriage
  • meeting online
  • introduced by a friend etc

The partners see each other as perfect and identical.  We are excited by the newness and potential of what exciting times may lie ahead. We try to show the best of ourselves and keep the not so desirable bits of ourselves hidden!

We develop a sense of belonging and trust in each other’s commitment to an evolving relationship. There is an emphasis on maximising similarities and minimising differences. We are addicted. We think about each other constantly and make much eye contact. We are very affectionate when we are together.

There is a sense that this person is not living up to your hopes and dreams. There is an accompanying loss of closeness. There is a desire to be close again but confusion as to how to create that. Suddenly the couple must learn:

  • how to deal with very real differences
  • how to deal with conflict
  • how to integrate being an independent person as well as someone in an intimate relationship

Power Struggle

At this point in a relationship, we are learning to compromise and negotiate the small things. These everyday issues eventually add up to whether you feel happy with this person.

For example:

  • Are you happy to go to their mums every Sunday for lunch?
  • Do you sleep with the window open or shut?
  • Dogs or cats, curry, or pizza?

At this point some couples realise they are not a good fit. They are not able to find a way to both feel happy with the compromises required.

We tend to have more disagreements. Interests diverge and develop independently; we lose earlier efforts at accommodation. Typically, each tries to control the other – a classic power struggle.  Not only do we not agree on anything, but we also feel that we have lost any connection with each other. This may scare us, but we are more afraid to let down our defences and give up control to the other person.

Finding yourself

If we have got through the power struggle stage, this stage challenges us to hold on to our identity as a couple.  Healthy relationships are such because each person has retained identity as an individual. They have not morphed into one just because they are a couple.

Having a clear idea of the identity of who we are as a couple helps us feel confident to also thrive as individuals. We may have different hobbies but also shared interests. If one partner finds this hard to do, it can lead to the breakdown of the relationship.

One of us may be feeling the impulse to run away from the relationship. “I want time for myself” and “I need some space” are the comments made.  Do I really want to stay with this person? We know who this person is now, we know their limitations, and we know if they are able to improve or get better. Knowing that, do we still want to stay? That is the question that gets answered during this stage.


In this stage there is a reawakening of interest in getting closer and connecting again. Knowing all we know, coming from reality, there is a decision to have the willingness to try once again. There is an open acceptance of the conflicts and differences in the relationship. They are approached with a different attitude.  We use them as opportunities for learning about oneself and the other person. This is the process of creating an honest, genuine intimate relationship. The relationship again begins to produce ongoing satisfaction for both partners.  If you have accepted one another for all the good and not so good bit you are able to move on to….

Love, respect and understanding

Each person takes responsibility for:

  • their own needs
  • their own individual lives
  • providing support for their partner

At this point we have worked out how to meet each other’s needs. We know how to love one another in the way that we need to feel safe, secure and thrive. A high level of warmth is present. 

Conflicts still arise on occasion. Life, with its stressful events upsets this hard-earned balance. We can quickly be transported back to power struggle or finding yourself. This is because of having to re-adjust to a new situation or life transition.  We have figured out how to resolve most conflicts relatively quickly. Resentments are few. There are few surprises: we know one another and know what to expect. We accept what we are getting, with no denial or fantasy involved. We work together as a team to stay connected and maintain our own identities.

It is often during the transition from one stage to another that conflict occurs. This stages model can help explore where the parents are in their journey. Not all relationships start with romance. Couples do not always move smoothly between stages or in a linear manner. People can move up and down the stages throughout a relationship.

It is important to acknowledge that this is a westernised model of relationship. Those from other cultures may experience the stages in a different order. For example, those in an arranged marriage may not start at the romance stage.

It is also important to note that the amount of time that people spend at each stage varies. A couple who has a pregnancy very early on in their relationship, may have a very short romance period.

People find it very comforting to know that these stages exist and are normal.  It normalises the difficult phases and reminds them that things can get better. The root of their conflict can be that they are on a different step to their partner. Being on different steps is also normal. However, it can create unrest in a relationship. There may be a lack of understanding for why the other person is in a different place.

As practitioners, we can ask them how they might support each other. They need to move along to a place of more mutual love and understanding. This can take time and skill in understanding one another’s needs.  We are not counsellors. Don’t try to mend anything using the stages of a relationship model. Use it as a springboard for a couple to better understand their relationship. Use it to spark constructive discussion.

20. Tools - Exploring Conflict

VSA - Vulnerability Stress Adaption Model

This model explains that all relationships will experience conflict due to:

  • the influence of past experiences (enduring vulnerabilities)
  • the impact of stressful life events 
  • the methods that individuals use to adapt and communicate

This could be problem-solving skills, conflict resolution skills and communication (adaptive processes).

When relationships are working well, couples can overcome conflict in a constructive way. This can be positive for children to witness. They learn valuable lessons that this is a normal and natural part of everyday life.

However, this can lead to destructive conflict where:

  • parents do not have these skills
  • stressful life events overwhelm them
  • stressful life events impact on the communication skills they normally use

This can be harmful and can have a negative impact on child outcomes.

The Vulnerability Stress Adaptation model shows:

  • The Enduring Vulnerabilities or the ‘stuff we bring with us’ to a relationship
  • Stressful events or the ‘stressful stuff that happens’ to a both people in a relationship that increases the feeling of stress
  • The adaptive process or ‘how we communicate’ in a relationship.
  • The relationship quality, which is dependent on the previous three. All three factors influence how people behave in relationships
  • It also shows that the couple interactions and quality of relationship lead to successful or difficult family outcomes

Enduring Vulnerabilities:

What we do and how we think is influenced by our past experiences. These experiences consist of many different things like:

  • The way you were parented – strict or lots of rules or divorce
  • The culture and community you lived in
  • Your genetic make-up, your personality
  • The socio-economic environment you have lived in
  • Your past relationships, romantic and family

All these experiences effect how we are as adults. It is our ‘baggage’ – some of this baggage is helpful and some of it is not. Some of our experiences have helped us become more resilient. Some have made us more vulnerable.

When we start a new relationship, we bring all of it with us. Our difficult experiences can stay dormant until a stressful life event occurs. It puts pressure on the relationship and how we function as a couple may change. A couple with poor communication skills might remain happy in a relationship without stressful events.

Types of stressful events:

  • New baby
  • Work or unemployment
  • Illness
  • Bereavement
  • Money

Events like this increase our partner’s need for support. Yet at the same time they reduce their capacity to provide it.

Adaptive Process:

How we communicate with each other becomes key.  Stressful life events can affect:

  • how partners manage their differences
  • how well they interpret one another’s behaviour

This can result in relationship difficulties and eventual decline.  Ways in which we communicate, behave and cope all have an impact on the relationship:


  • Shouting
  • Defensiveness or self-justification
  • Silent treatment
  • Avoidance (walking out)
  • Personal attacks
  • Slamming doors
  • Blaming

Our experiences create who we are and why we do the things we do. We need to recognise that our partner’s baggage lies behind the way they respond to change. This means we can try to feel less resentful towards their reaction.  Listening, understanding and responding with empathy leads to:

  • better adapting
  • better communication
  • a healthier relationship

This model helps us to build a more detailed picture of what the parents are going through. It provides more relevant, focused questions during meetings and encounters with them.

We need to help them to look at their history and their own experiences growing up. This increases their understanding of how the past may have affected adulthood. The impact it may have had on their thinking and behaviour.

The attitudes, beliefs, and values we hold are often entrenched and even unconscious. They have been reinforced over time and have become our behavioural patterns. At times of stress, negative underlying beliefs can surface. These influence behaviour and decision-making.

By understanding how stress affects us we can learn how to cope in a way that works for both people in a couple. The relationship is not broken by the impact of the stress.

For a blank Word document version of this model for you to use in your work with families please email us at Reducing Parental Conflict.

Thoughts Feelings Behaviour

This model helps couples to recognise how they internalise observed behaviour. This in turn affects how they feel, impacting on their response. This can help co-parents understand:

  • each other’s behaviour
  • why their arguments start
  • how they escalate.

It also helps us acknowledge the thoughts we are having. It opens the space to challenge assumptions and perceptions we have made. A person may feel rejected because a partner is staying late at work. Yet the partner may feel they need to stay at work because of financial pressures the family is under. By opening the conversation, we increase the chance of finding a solution.

An example of this is to think of two people standing either side of a number on the floor. The person on the left sees it as a 'six', the person on the right sees it as a 'nine'. So it is the same image seen differently from two different points of view.

We cannot read each other’s minds and tend not to be good at seeing things from someone else’s point of view. We can only see their behaviour and then:

  1. Assume they thus know what their partner must be thinking
  2. This affects how they feel and the thoughts that they have that then drives a behaviour in response
  3. Respond to those assumptions with their own behaviour

Assumptions are destructive. Often the assumed thoughts and feelings based on the way someone is behaving are wrong. This can then be the cause of accusations etc.

e.g.:  if you don’t put a kiss on your text, I read that as I have annoyed you. I respond with a sarcastically worded message back. That irritates you as it feels unnecessary and so reply with defence and so it goes on.

This model helps couples to recognise how they internalise behaviour that they observe. This in turn affects how they feel, impacting on their response.

If you change the way you behave towards each other, that affects your thoughts and feelings.  A couple can change the way they feel about one another by taking responsibility for the way they behave.

Thoughts Feelings and Behaviour

For example:

  • Observed Behaviour = When you ignore me when you are watching TV
  • Thought = I think this means you don’t want to be around me
  • Feeling - This makes me feel unloved
  • Behaviour = I do the washing up loudly in the kitchen to let you know I’m not happy

For a diagram of this model to use with the families you are working with please email us at Reducing Parental Conflict.

Our Typical Day

We can use a simple template to explore with families what happens in everyday life. Ask parents to write down what their routine looks like on a typical day in the morning, afternoon and night. We can then consider if those events are a trigger to conflict.

Are there flash points in a typical day when they are more prone to getting into a conflict situation? e.g., trying to leave the house in the morning, getting children to bed at night or mealtimes.

We can work with the family to find alternative ways to behave to avoid harmful conflict.  When they are calm, they could discuss why these triggers happen and what they could do to change things. Each taking responsibility to do things differently, avoiding conflict flash points.

21. Supporting Constructive Communication

Constructive vs Destructive

This tool helps parents to recognise which behaviours in conversations are:

  • constructive and helpful or
  • destructive and unhelpful

Which of these behaviours do you recognise in yourself or your partner?


  • Acknowledging
  • Calm
  • Focus on topic
  • No blaming
  • Find a solution
  • Show respect


  • Shouting or swearing
  • Trying to win
  • Make personal comments
  • Don’t listen
  • No resolution
  • Lack focus

Parents in conflict may not identify the destructive elements of their behaviour.

The constructive and destructive cards provide the opportunity to discuss behaviours with parents. They identify if they are present in a relationship.

To do the exercise draw 3 columns on a piece of paper with the titles:

  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Never

Ask the couples or individual parent to think about the behaviours on the cards. They place them in the ‘always,’ ‘sometimes,’ ‘never’ columns as they apply to them. Next, ask them what they would consider to be constructive and destructive behaviours.

Using solution focused questioning helps couples:

  • identify how they could change their destructive behaviour and
  • increase the positive behaviours.

Remember, all relationships experience conflict, it’s about how we resolve it.

The cards are a tool to start and aid discussion with parents.  It is normal for destructive behaviours to creep into a relationship unnoticed. Identifying this is the first step. They recognise the impact that the behaviour has on the other person.

If with both parents together be careful not to let an argument start because of doing this exercise. Encourage a focus on what they are doing well and what they could do differently to meet each other’s needs. Give each person’s thoughts and feelings equal importance. Give them the chance to discuss perspectives to create a more positive connection.

The wording of the Constructive vs Destructive cards:

  • Starting an argument as soon as my partner walks through the door
  • Accepting that you might disagree
  • Asking each other's point of view
  • Listening to the other point of view without interrupting
  • Keep repeating your views until your partner recognises you are right
  • Interrupting to get your point of view across
  • Withdrawing from the conversation as it's not going your way
  • Recognising that whilst you may not agree, your partner has a valid point
  • Allow each other the opportunity to express your views
  • Tell your partner what they should do
  • Using examples from the past to prove that you are right
  • Interrupting your partner whilst they are speaking
  • Pointing out your partner's flaws when they support your argument
  • Using insults to make your point and share your feelings
  • Choosing the right time
  • Raising your voice to make sure you get your point of view across
  • Explaining how the situation is making you feel
  • Having a solution in mind to the problem and don't change your mind
  • Check out what you agree about
  • Show you understand the other person's point of view
  • Ending an argument both feeling that you have been heard
  • Ending an argument feeling upset and angry
  • Considering issues from someone else's point of view
  • Offering solutions to problems but be willing to compromise and listening to others' suggestions

For a PowerPoint document version of this model for practitioners to use with families please email us at Reducing Parental Conflict.


Getting on Better cards

Relationship experts OnePlusOne, have developed the ‘Getting on Better’ cards. They did this in partnership with Brighton and Hove City Council.

They can support parents to think about their relationship in a new way. They have ideas on how to reduce tension and arguments and improve communication. Parents can look through and follow the suggestions either together or separately.

There are two cards for separated parents and six for couples. Parents can use them without any guidance from professionals.

Please see the online versions here:   Getting On Better cards

You versus I Statements

This support tool recognises different ways of beginning a conversation. It engages a couple to see there are helpful and harmful ways. If we always start with ‘you’ it will sound like we are blaming, like we are pointing our finger at the other person. The natural response to that is to be defensive in return – creating an argument.

The idea of this tool is to think of alternatives to ‘You’ statements that begin with an ‘I’ instead. If we start a conversation with ‘I’ instead then we own our thoughts and feelings. We are not blaming. We are trying to start a productive conversation rather than starting conflict.

‘I’ statements enable speakers to be assertive without making accusations. When used correctly, ‘I’ statements can help foster positive communication in relationships and may help them become stronger. Sharing feelings and thoughts can help partners grow closer on an emotional level.

Construct an ‘I’ statement which takes the phrase from accusing to disclosing. At a basic level consider using the following framework to create ‘I’ statements.

I feel...



What I need...

Consider how these ‘you’ statements change into ‘I’ statements:

  • You just don’t understand me - I feel like I’m not being understood, and its making feel upset
  • Why are you always late? - I feel anxious and worried when you don’t come home on time
  • You don’t do anything when you get home in the evening - I feel overwhelmed when I get the children ready for bed 
  • You never think of me - I feel like, I’m being forgotten and that I’m not important

Many people do not communicate naturally with ‘I’ statements. It often takes practice before a person can use them effectively. We cannot just replace ‘you’ with ‘I’ e.g. “I get really cross because you never listen!” is still a blaming statement. Instead ‘I’ needs to be about owning the feeling you want to communicate. “I’m feeling quite frustrated at the moment as it feels to me like you are not that interested in what I have to say.”

Use the cards to help parents to describe how they feel using ‘I’ statements instead of ‘You’ statements.

The wording of the cards:

  • Today I enjoyed
  • Today I struggled with
  • I don't understand why
  • I have support from
  • I feel anxious when
  • I feel relaxed when
  • I was surprised at
  • I would like us to start
  • I would like us to keep
  • Things go wrong when
  • It would be great if
  • I enjoy when
  • Something I'm not sure about is
  • I would like to stop
  • I need help with
  • I get irritated by
  • I struggle to
  • I can help with

For a PowerPoint document version of this model for practitioners to use with families please email us on Reducing Parental Conflict.

Couples can get stuck in poor communication habits.  Tackling new ways of communicating with our partner takes practice. When it is new, it can help to think a conversation through.  It can help to practice a soft start-up before we approach our partner.

Children in the Middle

When parents put their children in the middle of their conflict then it can be harmful. Parents can put their children in one or more of these positions. This is particularly in co-parenting relationships.

Having a positive relationship with a co-parent can be difficult. This is especially when the relationship breakdown was painful. 

By keeping distinct parent and child roles children do not have to:

  • assume responsibilities they are not ready for
  • feel they need to take sides in relationships

These are the 5 main roles that children can take on when their parents are not together. Consider the effect on the child:

1. The Mediator.

The child is the mediator between parents, keeping everyone happy and solving problems:

  • The child feels like they must try to keep the peace, which can feel like a heavy burden.
  • Help parents reach agreements so that the child does not need to take on this role

2. The Judge.

When you criticise an ex and expect your child to judge who is right or wrong

  • The child is put in the uncomfortable position of thinking that there is a goodie and baddie in every situation.
  • Discuss with parents how they can help the child understand, without condemning either parent

3. The Confidant.

When you share too much information with your child and expect them to fill the gap due to a lack of intimate communication with your co-parent

  • A child will quickly begin to feel resentful of being put in this position and this could significantly affect how they feel about their parents
  • Help the parents to learn new ways offloading their problems onto more appropriate people

4. The Messenger.

When you ask your child to take information between you and your partner about money, contact etc

  • The child becomes involved in detail about their care that are not appropriate for them to know, they are just a child, they shouldn’t be worrying about parental details.
  • Help parents to realise that their child is not a messenger and that they should communicate through each other or a third person

5. The Spy.

When you ask your child questions about your partner or an ex and rely on them to find out what is going on.

  • The child learns to lie and adopt sneaky behaviour they may feel pressure to report back detail about each parent that they would not be normally interested in as a child.
  • Help parents to see that this role does not allow them to move on or improve the parenting relationship

This information can be used with parents as 'Role Cards' e.g.: Review these cards and give examples of situations your partner might get into. Consider the role you are asking your child or children to take on. For a PowerPoint document version of this model for practitioners to use with families please email us at Reducing Parental Conflict.

Some additional roles to consider:

  • Reconciler – the child tries to get the parents back together
  • Peacemaker – the child tells each parent what they think they want to hear
  • Decision taker – the child takes responsibility for important adult decisions
  • Scapegoat – the child tests out the boundaries – fears both parents abandoning them
  • Mourner – the child shows grief for the lost family that parents are repressing
  • Substitute Parent or carer – Child provides practical and emotional support. Parent relies on their child for caring, household duties

Helping parents to identify they might be doing this is an important first step in encouraging change.

It is helpful to get parents to acknowledge the effect of the conflict on the child. Ask them to consider the impact it may be having.  Ask them to explore alternative behaviours that may be better for the children.

The involvement of co-parents in court proceedings can make children weapons:

  • Parental alienation syndrome. This is where one parent tries to turn a child against the other. If done for a long time this can stop the child from wanting the see the other parent.
  • Using access to the children. Stopped or threatened to be stopped to punish the other. E.g. if they have not paid maintenance money or have a new partner
  • Telling the children about the conflict. e.g., details of court proceedings to make the other parent look bad
  • Threatening to take the children away
  • Threatening to call or calling Social Services on the other parent. Sometimes concerns may be genuine, sometimes they are made up or exaggerated. The motivation for calling can often be to hurt the other parent or make them look bad.


Problem-solving is a step-by-step way of finding solutions to problems.  It will meet the needs of both people concerned. This structured approach helps come up with solutions that are more creative. They also give a practical plan.  By following a process, it helps to take some of the emotion out of the discussions. 

In the problem-solving model, the circle containing identify is at the top as that is the best place to start. Then follow the remaining six steps but it is set out in a circle with arrows between each step as the problem-solving cycle is a continuous cycle of improvement that can be repeated as many times as is needed.

STEP 1: Identifying the problems

Ask yourself what the problem is. Define in specific and concrete terms that say what, when, where and why, it is a problem.

STEP 2: Defining Goals

Try to define your goals specifically. Make them as realistic and attainable as possible. What would the situation look like when the problem has been solved?

STEP 3: Brainstorming

Take time to brainstorm possible ways to resolve the problem.  There are usually several ways to reach a goal, and the first thought isn’t always the best. Write down all ideas, even the ones that seem absurd or bizarre. Try to find 6-8 varying alternatives. Do not evaluate the options now, but just try to generate as many ideas as possible. Remember one option is always to do nothing.

STEP 4: Assessing Alternatives

Before deciding on a plan, for every option you came up with in the previous step:

  • weigh the positive effects and negative consequences that each solution would bring
  • consider how they will impact on each parent and the child

STEP 5: Choosing the Solution

Carefully weigh all solutions. The best solution is not necessarily the option with the most pros and or the least cons. Think about what means more to you. Which solution can highlight the positive effects that matter the most to you? Which solution produces the mildest consequences?

STEP 6: Trial It

Try out the chosen solution. When you have decided on the best option, work out how to give it every chance of working and then give it a try. Don’t worry about failure or potential problems.

STEP 7: Evaluation

It’s time to evaluate your success. Set a time with your (ex)partner to review how the solution worked out. Review any unexpected consequences. If you were successful great if not don’t worry. Maybe you did not quite choose the right solution, or the situation changed. Remember a review can be a good learning experience. Take this new information and return to the beginning and try again or use it the next time a problem comes up.

Conflict Management Styles

With families in conflict, it is important to understand everyone’s position and interests. An interest is a person’s needs, fears, desires, and basic concerns. Each of us have a natural reaction to conflict and how we deal with it, our natural instinct is to attack or retreat.  However, we can change this, and we can learn more effective ways of managing conflict. Our reactions reflect how important we feel:

  • our needs are
  • it is to maintain the relationship

The different Conflict Management Types are listed below:

The Turtle: Avoiding

Turtles withdraw into their shells to avoid conflict. They will give up their personal goals and try to stay away from people or issues where there is conflict. A Turtle will withdraw (either physically or psychologically) from conflict. They would rather not face it.

The Shark: Competing 

Sharks assume that you can only settle a conflict with one side winning and the other losing. They will overpower opponents by forcing them to accept their solution. They will often attack, overwhelm, and intimidate their opponent. For a shark, winning will give them a sense of pride and achievement. Losing makes them feel weak and like a failure.

The Teddy Bear: Accommodating

A teddy bear thinks the relationship is more important than their own goals or needs. They avoid conflict because they believe it will damage or ruin their relationship. They want everyone to like and love them. A teddy bear will give up their needs to preserve their relationship, accepting a loss.

The Fox: Compromising

Foxes will give something up if they can persuade the other person to give them what they want. This is fine if it is done openly rather than being sneaky. They should let the other person know that the fox expects something back.

The Owl: Collaborating

Owls see conflict as a problem one must solve. They will seek to find a solution that will meet their needs and the other person’s needs. By finding a solution that satisfies themselves and others, owls maintain the relationship. They look for a solution that will be a positive outcome for everyone.

When working with families in conflict look out for these styles. Adapt the approach accordingly. For example, a shark will see ‘compromise’ as losing. A turtle will be more difficult to engage with conflict resolution.  The aim is to move people away from their positions but to do we need to deal with the feelings first. Anger is often because of an unmet need.

  • Find out their position
  • Address their feelings
  • Find out and address their interest, their needs, and fears
  • Move them towards finding common ground

Hopes and dreams for our new baby

This activity can help parents manage their expectations and the realities of having a new-born:

A new baby is exciting:   You may have been thinking about becoming a parent for years. You will have some clear ideas about what you expect your child’s life to be like now and in the future. This questionnaire will help you about what each of you dream of for your child now and as they grow. It will help you to identify your strengths in achieving your dream. It will identify any difficulties you might encounter and the support you can call on to help:

  • When my baby is born I hope that…
  • As my child grows, I dream that he or she will…
  • When my child is older, I hope their memories of their childhood are…
  • When my child is older, I hope their memories of their childhood are not…
  • The things I can do to help my child achieve these hopes are…
  • The things that might make this difficult are…
  • The kind of support I will need is…

My Week, Your Week

Co-parents both keep a 7-day diary, This helps them to see each other’s perspective. Their roles may have changed following the arrival of a new baby.

For example, the main carer of the baby may say that she has been woken every hour to feed her baby during the night. She has felt exhausted, and she feels she needs support. She is breastfeeding, so she accepts she needs to deal with feeding. However she feels that her partner could do more to help her when he gets home. Her co-parent is going to work Monday to Friday (leaving the flat at 8am and returning at 6pm). He feels exhausted as he must deal with rush hour travel. He is also dealing with the pressures of trying to get a promotion (and more money). They need to move from their 1-bedroom flat. He feels he deserves a hot meal at least when he gets home.

By completing a diary the main carer might see that the baby is napping after her morning feed for two hours. Perhaps she can catch up on sleep at this time? This might help her feel less exhausted.

The co-parent might see that changing his working hours to an earlier start and finish will help. This will avoid the stress of rush hour travel and leave him feeling less tired. It will also help him get ahead with getting that promotion and he will be home for baby’s bath time which he loves.

Both parents can:

  • Work out a way to use time more efficiently, so they feel happier and healthier
  • See each other’s perspective and value the other’s position
  • Hear how each feel and what each need
  • Rearrange roles if necessary
  • Reduce conflict

Solution Focused Tools

Solution-focused work helps identify existing client movement towards their preferred future. The worker can then help them to increase those behaviours or activities. They can help them move closer still like instances, exceptions, scaling questions:


  • An instance refers to an aspect of the preferred future. This has already happened or is happening
  • Discussion of instances will help the parents to stay close to the positive vision. They can consider how they are already moving towards their hopes
  • It is preferable to discuss the preferred future in relation to instances. Instances are framed in relation to the solution. Exceptions are framed in relation to the problem.


  • It can be useful to discuss exceptions in situations where a parent is very stuck in talking about their problems. They are struggling to describe their preferred future
  • It might also be useful when a parent is finding it hard to discuss ‘what is better’. They are talking about problems that have occurred since the last meeting
  • In these cases it might be helpful for them to think about exceptions to these situations. For example, when the problem was not a problem
  • This process can help them to recognise that the problem is not a problem all the time. They think of ways that they can build on their existing strengths and coping skills

Scaling Questions

  • On a scale of 0-10 how important is X to you?
  • On a scale of 0-10 how confident do you feel to do X?
  • On a scale of 0-10 how ready are you to do X now?

Clarifying Questions

  • What puts you at a 4 and not a 2
  • What would need to happen to move you up the scale?
  • What would you need to prevent you going down the scale?

Respond to change talk:

  • Listen for and reflect on change talk to ascertain desire and ability, reason, need & commitment. Increase motivation and confidence to change
  • What might indicate intention or willingness to do something different

Waving a magic wand

  • A wizard waved a magic wand and cast a spell. Suddenly your best hopes all happened in a way that was exactly how you wanted it. You did not know that the wizard had done this…
  • What would be the first thing you noticed? What told you that the wizard had used his magic wand to make your best hopes happen?
  • What would you be doing?
  • What would other people notice?

The Miracle Day

  • Suppose a miracle happens when you are asleep tonight:
    • How would you know that the miracle has happened?
    • What would you notice?
    • What would other people notice?

Social Media in Relationships

You are likely to be harsher in the language you use in a text (a good tip is to read aloud what you have typed before you send it). There is so much room for misinterpretation. There is often a lack of context, always a lack of tone.

It can be wise for parents to agree some rules of engagement around social media and messaging. This is especially if they are separated.

  • not to send passive aggressive messages
  • not to expect instant responses to messages when you are at work
  • not to air personal issues via cryptic Facebook posting


If the parents are open to it ask them to think about a message they sent recently.  It may have sparked some conflict.  Think about how they could rephrase the text.

Remember that how you type something is open to interpretation. This is a basic step towards reducing the negative impact for social media on a relationship.

Just saying ‘that’s not what I meant’ is often not enough to repair the damage done.

22. Assessment Tools

The questionnaires in this toolkit are suitable for practitioners who work with families. The tools do not require a clinical or further training.

These tools focus on communication and conflict.  They provide information to the person who completes them and to the practitioner. The practitioner needs to be familiar with the measure. They need to know how to use it, score it, and talk with parents about it. 

All the tools are short and easy to use, well tested and focused on understanding what we can help with.

Having the conversation about conflict can be hard, with a measuring tool it is easier. The questions give us and the parents a useful start point or baseline.  Scoring for all the tools is simple. Most parents can look at it and work out themselves what might be going on in their family. They can work out what they need to tackle first.

Questionnaires can assess the families progress and recognise change. Pre- and post-testing will help to measure the effectiveness of the work. These show a reduction in problematic behaviours or an increase in positive behaviours.

Parents must understand the impact their relationship quality is having on their children. However feeling so blamed and attached can lead to guilt and anxiety.  Asking parents to complete a questionnaire can help us normalise the conversations. This is what we do with all the parents we work with.

  • Parent problem checklist
  • Healthy relationships Questionnaire
  • Family relationships self-reporting questionnaire
  • Acrimony Scale
  • Parental Conflict Assessment Considerations
  • Chronologies

For blank Word document versions of the questionnaires for practitioners to use with families please email us at Reducing Parental Conflict.

Parent Problem Checklist

The parent problem checklist helps identify issues parents disagree on:

Parent Problem Checklist

Healthy Relationships Questionnaire

This questionnaire is for parents to consider their relationship and its strengths and challenges.

When completing the questionnaire parents should think about how they feel on a day-to-day basis, not just right at this moment in time.

Healthy Relationships Questionnaire

To score the questionnaire, add up the total score.

Family Relationships Self-Reporting Questionnaire

Parents answer the questions based on how things have been over the last few weeks. Complete the questions at the start and the end of your support. Separately with each parent.


  1. Things used to be better than they are now between me and my co-parent or partner
  2. We argue more than we used to do
  3. The children we are responsible for are happy
  4. I think our arguments affect our children
  5. Sometimes I feel guilty about the happiness of the children because of tension between the adults around them (including extended family)
  6. With the right support I think we should be able to work out the co-parenting or couple difficulties
  7. I am aware why we argue and how to make it better
  8. The arguments between us are loud
  9. We are both as bad as each other

Acrimony Scale for Separated Parents

This questionnaire identifies issues for separated parents. For the following questions please rate them 1-4

1 = Almost never

2 = Some of the time

3 = Much of the time

4 = Almost always

Acrimony scoring key:

Scale score is computed by adding each of the items.

Note that items 1,2,5,6,7,8,9,20,21,24,25 are reversed scored (4=1, 3=2, 2=3, 1=4)

  1. Do you feel friendly towards your ex-partner?
  2. Do your children feel friendly towards your ex-partner?
  3. Are gifts to the children a problem between you and your ex-partner?
  4. Is visitation a problem between you and your ex-partner?
  5. Do you have friendly talks with your ex-partner?
  6. Is your ex-partner a good parent?
  7. Do your children see your ex-partner as often as you would like?
  8. Do your children see your ex-partner as often as they would like?
  9. Do you and your ex-partner agree on discipline for the children?
  10. Are your children harder to handle after a visit with your ex-partner?
  11. Do you and your ex-partner disagree in front of the children?
  12. Do the children take sides in disagreements between you and your ex-partner?
  13. Are child support payments a problem between you and your ex-partner?
  14. Do your children feel hostile towards your ex-partner?
  15. Does your ex-partner say things about you to the children that you don’t want them to hear?
  16. Do you say things about your ex-partner to the children that he or she wouldn’t want them to hear?
  17. Do you have angry disagreements with your ex-partner?
  18. Do you feel hostile towards your ex-partner?
  19. Does your ex-partner feel hostile towards you?
  20. Can you talk to your ex-partner about problems with the children?
  21. Do you have a friendly divorce or separation?
  22. Are pick-ups and drop-offs of the children between you and your partner a difficult time?
  23. Does your ex-partner encourage your child to live with him or her?
  24. Have you adjusted to being divorced or separated from your ex-partner?
  25. Has your ex-partner adjusted to being divorced or separated from you?

Parental Conflict Assessment Considerations

  1. Who is in the family? (Can use genogram):
  2. What is causing the parental conflict? (be specific)

3. Questions for Parent A:

  • Behaviours used in response to parental conflict (both healthy and unhealthy)
  • Impact on Parent B
  • Impact on children (consider each separately)
  • Impact on whole family
  • What are parent A’s views on the situation?

4. Questions for Parent B:

  • Behaviours used in response to parental conflict (both healthy and unhealthy)
  • Impact on Parent A
  • Impact on children (consider each separately)
  • Impact on whole family
  • What are parent A’s views on the situation?


5. What are the children’s views of the situation?

 6. What are the needs, difficulties, issues that need to be addressed for each person:

i. Parent A

ii. Parent B

iii. For the Children (consider each separately)

iv. For the family

Helpful prompts:

  • Do they recognise the conflict?
  • Communication
  • Problem-solving
  • Emotional impact
  • Thinking patterns
  • Negotiation and compromise
  • What baggage does each parent bring?
  • Other areas of support – employment/finances


A chronology lists in date order all the major changes and events in a child or young person’s life.

  • Done effectively it helps to place children at the centre of everything we do
  • An effective chronology can help identify risks, patterns, issues in a child’s life
  • Gives a better understanding of the immediate or cumulative impact of events
  • It helps make links between past and present. Helps to understand the importance of historic information upon what is happening in a child’s life now
  • Highlight gaps that require further exploration, investigation and assessment
  • Good chronologies enable new workers to become familiar with the case
  • A good chronology can draw attention to seemingly unrelated events, information, patterns, trends
  • Accurate chronologies can assist the process of assessment
  • They can improve the sharing and understanding of the impact of information on a child’s life

Professional judgement is required to decide whether circumstances or events:

  • are significant for a particular child and family and
  • can be used as an analytical tool to help understand the impact of events, especially where children have been exposed to numerous episodes of destructive parental conflict.

23. Acknowledgements

Acknowledgment and thanks to:

  • The Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) and
  • Knowledge Pool

Owners of the intellectual property rights for some of the resources reproduced here.