Are smartphones causing more family conflicts than ever?

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Carolanne Bamford-Beattie


What is a family conflict?

Disagreements in families are normal. Not everyone can get along and agree all of the time. But without proper communication, lack of respect for your partner’s viewpoint or feelings, and letting things get out of hand, family conflicts can escalate, with the potential to ruin a marriage or relationship.

What causes family conflict?

Lots of things can cause family conflict. They’re more likely to happen when there is a major life event that takes adjustment. One partner might take a different view, adjust more easily, or find things challenging that the other doesn’t.

Here are four common causes of family conflict 

  • Having a baby
  • Moving in together
  • Navigating extended family relationship
  • Different parenting and discipline styles

Take this example (and not necessarily in this order!). You find a partner, move in together, get married and have a baby. Everything has been going great, but as your child grows and develops their own personality, you decide that it’s important to be more firm in your approach to discipline. 

Your partner disagrees, or doesn’t follow-through on the agreed approach and it just feels like only one of you is enforcing the rules. That makes you feel like ‘bad cop’ and start to resent your partner for the ‘fun’ relationship they have with your child, while you’re the one dishing out the punishments.

How cell phones affect family relationships

When it comes to family conflicts, there is a small and unassuming item that often becomes the root source of a lot of tension and arguments. The smartphone. 

Children and teenagers with smartphones need to understand – and follow – some basic rules when it comes to cell phone use. It’s important that they don’t spend all their leisure time on social media and forget their assignments. They need to be kept safe from content that’s disturbing or not appropriate to their age. And most of all, they need to be shielded from predators and dangerous individuals who are out to harm them. 

Trouble can also rear its head when the cell phone becomes the pivotal disciplinary tool in the household. Revoking phone privileges, or having fluid time limits on when and where the phone can be used can lead to an unhealthy dynamic between the phone and the child. And, if you and your partner aren’t aligned on the rules associated with the cell phone, and don’t follow-through on any agreed consequences, tensions can run high. 

It’s not just the impact phones have on discipline that can cause family conflicts, it’s their omnipresence in the home that can add fuel to the fire.

It’s not just children that get sucked into the dopamine slot machine of the Instagram feed – adults find it hard to break away from the addictive nature of social media channels. Constant access to the office through email and team management apps, and the ability to watch your favourite shows in your palm all make devoting time to family, and not your cell, more difficult than ever before.

Kids model us, so if one parent is always attached to their phone, they’re leading by example and showing the kids that it’s OK not to listen, or partake in family activities and bonding time. 

It’s these disagreements over discipline, and one parent feeling like they’re the only one doing the discipline that can lead to resentments and deep cracks in the family dynamic that take a proactive approach to resolve.

How to solve family conflicts

The key to resolving the differences you have in a family conflict is the openness to communicate and reach a common ground. If one member of the family won’t  negotiate and discuss the issue, it will be impossible to move forward.

If you’re ready to talk, the first step is to take the anger out of the situation. Pick a neutral spot and at a time of the day when people are calm and rested. Here are some suggestions on how to start moving forward together.

  • Get to the root of the issue and determine if it’s actually worth fighting over
  • There are no winners in family conflict, so don’t make it your objective to ‘win’ the argument
  • Agreeing to disagree respects the other person’s point of view but doesn’t compromise your values
  • Listen and don’t talk over each other
  • Stick to the topic and don’t use it as a way to criticize the other person

The following approach helps to diffuse the tension and start a positive conversation, but there will be important things that you need to come to a compromise on. For example, disagreements over one parent doing the discipline is something that needs resolving practically.

If this is a conflict that’s happening in your family, it might be useful to remind your partner why discipline is important, and define what discipline actually means to you both. 

You might find that your partner is reluctant to follow-through on consequences because they associate discipline with punishment and unhappy memories from their own childhood. Healthy discipline isn’t about shouting and screaming, it’s about setting clear boundaries and enforcing rules with pre-agreed consequences. It’s not about taking the fun out of childhood or being ‘strict’ or ‘mean’. Healthy discipline shows your child that the world has rules – and that you need to follow them in order to stay safe, comfortable and out of trouble. Children need discipline so that they can make sense of the world around them and feel secure. 

But what happens if you feel like your child needs more discipline, but your partner doesn’t? Let’s take a look at some of the signs that a child might need more structure in their behavior. 

Signs of a child lacking discipline include:

They hate the word ‘no’ 

If the word ‘no’ sets off a bomb in your house, your child’s sense of entitlement might be to blame. We all need to hear ‘no’, because not everything is possible for us and respecting others’ boundaries is essential for healthy relationships. If your child has a visceral reaction to the word ‘no’, try to take the emotion out of things by being as rational, and as short in your sentences as possible when explaining things. 

They lack ratitude

Do you feel like you bend over backwards for your child and don’t get anything in return? Do you feel taken for granted? Positive reinforcement of any kind, helpful and positive behaviours helps your child to understand that it feels good to help others.

They don’t care about your feelings

It’s hurtful to think that your child doesn’t care about your feelings. If they seem not to care about the effect that their bad behaviour has on you or others around them, some positive discipline may help to get your child to recognize the importance of taking other people’s emotions into account. 

They blame others

If they’re unwilling to accept fault or say sorry, it may be that they haven’t had enough opportunities to learn to be responsible and remorseful for bad behavior. In short, they’ve been ‘getting away with it’ for too long.


How can you solve family conflict by getting to an agreement on discipling your children?

Find the good

Differences in discipline styles is a sure fire way to start conflicts, and your children can feel it. First things first, find something about the way your partner interacts with your children, say out loud, and build from there.

What’s most important to you?

Now pick the non-negotiables. Make a list of the things that are really important to you, and have your partner do the same. Compare lists and find the commonalities.

Think of the future

What kind of adults do you want your children to be? Now think of the building blocks of behavior that will get them there. Do you want them to be compassionate? Do you want them to be ambitious and make the most of their talents? Find a hierarchy within these things and make sure your rules ladder up to these traits.

Get a secret sign

Don’t raise voices or argue in front of the kids. At worst it will cause them distress, and at best, they’ll use it to divide and conquer later. Take the heat out of the situation and hash it out when you’re alone. And never undermine the other in front of the kids.

Agree on technology

 In today’s digitized world, there are clear tensions between how much kids want to be online versus what’s good for them. You can help reduce that in your own home by being clear on the rules. If you need some ideas on where to start, check out the Kidslox Guide to Cell Phone contracts. The London School of Economics also has great advice on navigating the digital world as a family. 

Get outside help if you need it.

If you are really struggling to find a common ground on how best to manage things like how much time your children spend on their cell phones, and you’re worried that family conflicts are having a damaging effect on your marriage or relationship, there are counselling organisations and family support groups out there who can lend practical and professional advice.