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9 Reasons Parent-Child Conflict Hurts The Most, According To Psychology

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Conflict between a parent and their grown child can be distressing for both parties.

In fact, it could be said that conflict in this relationship is more hurtful than in any other type of relationship.

But what makes it so upsetting?

What are the psychological factors that make parent-child tension so difficult to cope with?

Let’s take a look.

1. We expect parent-child love to be unconditional.

Affects: both parent and child.

When major arguments take place, the child may feel a lack of love from their parent and vice versa. And we kind of assume that our parents and our children will love us unconditionally.

We’ve always had their love, we’ve always felt loved by them, but now something big has happened that makes us question that love.

Why don’t they love us? Are we not lovable?

Of course, a disagreement—even a major one—doesn’t mean our parent or child doesn’t love us, but it sure can feel that way when emotions are running high and your mind perceives things in a negative light.

2. We expect the relationship to be ever-present.

Affects: both parent and child.

Romantic relationships end with alarming regularity, even ones that have lasted years or decades.

We’ve become used to the idea that around half of all marriages end in divorce (even if that is no longer the case).

But our parents and children should, we hope, remain in our lives until death takes them or us.

And yet, when the proverbial muck hits the fan, it can feel as though that relationship might be as good as dead.

A sense of loss can wash over us, and we might literally go through the grieving process for a relationship we thought would last “forever.”

While the same can be said of romantic relationships and even friendships, it’s quite different because…

3. We can’t replace a parent or child.

Affects: both parent and child.

We can find new lovers. We can make new friends. But we can’t simply decide to find a new parent or child if the relationship we have with ours is breaking down.

While it’s true that we may have another parent (assuming they are still a figure in our lives) or we may have other children, those relationships are not a like-for-like substitute for the one that is at risk.

That relationship is unique. It has layer upon layer of emotion and history.

And so, when conflict happens, the anxiety we feel can be overwhelming.

What if we never see or speak to them again? What if the relationship is downgraded to nothing more than acquaintances who find themselves swapping pleasantries when forced into the same room by circumstance?

How will we cope when the bond we’ve shared for so long is broken?

4. We feel alone and lonely without our parent or child in our life.

Affects: both parent and child.

The stability of a parent-child relationship can make us feel as though we’re never alone. Even if we don’t see them that often, we know we could count on them if we needed them.

So, when there’s a major blowout in that relationship, we can feel alone in this world because that dependability is gone.

It doesn’t matter if we have a partner or lots of friends—or even another parent or other children—the absence of a once-important relationship can hit us hard and make us feel lonely.

That’s because none of our other relationships can fill the hole left by a distant or absent parent-child relationship.

5. Our sense of trust, security, and self-worth can be damaged.

Affects: primarily the child, but also the parent to a lesser degree.

Our formative years condition us in so many ways. We become the adults we are thanks in large part to the childhood we experience.

When our childhood relationships with our parents are largely healthy, they promote a sense of security because we know we can rely on them. We also trust our parents and learn to trust others by extension.

Those relationships also leave us feeling more positively about ourselves. We like who we are because we see that our parents like us for who we are too.

It should come as no surprise, then, that if those hugely influential relationships are suddenly taken away due to conflict (even temporarily), we may begin to experience issues around trust, security, and self-worth (among other things).

Should we rely on others if we can’t even rely on our parents? Should we trust others if we don’t feel able to trust our parents? Why would other people like us, and why should we like ourselves, if it seems our parents don’t even like us?

Of course, a parent might think and feel some of these same things, but likely to a lesser extent.

6. There’s often spillover into our other familial relationships.

Affects: both parent and child.

Family relationships are uniquely complex. And conflict between two members of a family will inevitably lead to challenges among other family members too.

Quite often, those in the middle feel like they have to remain neutral, while at other times they may choose a side.

In truth, it’s a no-win scenario for them. If they try to stay out of the conflict, they may be accused of “not standing up” for one or both parties. If they take sides, it will hurt the party whose side they have not chosen.

Relationships between a child and the “other” parent will be strained. The relationship between parents is likely to suffer too. And if there are other children/siblings, their relationships with the warring parent-child duo won’t be spared either.

This is why parent-child conflict can cause so much havoc and hurt so much.

7. We often feel able to say more hurtful and cruel things to family.

Affects: both parent and child.

It’s often the case that the closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to say things that hurt their feelings.

Partly because we relax our boundaries around our loves ones, and we speak with less care and consideration as a result. Being blunt with our thoughts and feelings becomes normalized.

We expect our loved ones to take it, to accept us as we are, and to love us regardless of how hurtful we can be.

And so, with the possible exception of long-term romantic partners, it feels more “okay” to treat our family members disrespectfully than it does to treat other people the same way.

And the more personal an attack is, the more it’s going to hurt, right?

Typically, our family members know us incredibly well. They know our insecurities and they know what to say to hit us where it hurts.

Conflict between a parent and grown child can, then, get to us like few other conflicts can.

8. We may develop doubts about our ability to parent.

Affects: both parent and child.

We want to feel like good parents. Or that we will make good parents if we aren’t one already.

But when we experience a major clash either with our parent or our grown child, it can fill our heads with negative thoughts and perceptions about our ability to parent.

The parent may think they did a bad job raising their child, or they may criticize themselves for not handling the situation that caused the conflict better.

The grown child may look at the strained relationship they have with their parent and wonder whether they are doomed to have a similarly fractious relationship with their children or future children.

The self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence of both the parent and the child will inevitably take a knock when tumultuous conflict occurs.

9. Parent-child dynamics are more fluid than any other relationship.

Affects: both parent and child.

No relationship is straightforward, but that between a parent and child changes more than any other.

It starts off with the child being utterly dependent on the parent. Then the child grows more independent and seeks to pull away from their parent and spread their wings. The child becomes an adult and the dependency often ends completely. And eventually it is the parent who may become dependent on the child in some ways.

Aspects of the relationship including control, authority, discipline, and assertiveness change again and again throughout life.

There is a natural push-pull between parent and child that may never cease.

In many ways, these fluid dynamics make the relationship stronger as both parties grow, evolve, and adapt to changing circumstances. But they can also make the relationship more challenging.

When conflict arises, the natural undulations of the parent-child relationship can swing too far and cause big problems. Emotions can get out of hand, expectations can go unmet, and actions can be taken that damage the core bond that exists.

Final thoughts on parent-child conflict.

If you have experienced major conflict with your parent or child, you’ll know just how much it can hurt.

If there has been a complete breakdown in the relationship, you may wish to consider booking a few sessions (or more) with a therapist. Not a family therapist, but an individual therapist who can help you examine the emotional harm caused by that breakdown and assist your healing process.

Don’t underestimate the impact serious parent-child conflict can have and the importance of dealing with the personal aftermath rather than suppressing it.

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About The Author

Steve Phillips-Waller is the founder and editor of A Conscious Rethink. He has written extensively on the topics of life, relationships, and mental health for more than 8 years.