The effect of conflict during separation and divorce on children
Luisa Williams, CEO & Founder from My Family Psychologist joins us on the blog with her advice on how does conflict during separation and divorce affect children?
Imagine that you are about to go on the world’s scariest rollercoaster ride.
You didn’t want to go on it at first, but you have been told by others that not going on this rollercoaster would be the wrong decision.
You have been arguing with your partner for the past six months about it and having a constant push and pull.
You have to decide whether this is a rollercoaster you want to experience, whether you can afford to go on this ride and what you want to achieve.
Then, if you decide that you have to ride it, so does everybody you care about, even if they don’t want to.
Now, imagine that your child or children have witnessed all of your arguments about the rollercoaster and feel that they have no choice but to ride that rollercoaster with you.
This level of conflict has impacted that child so much that they are now involved in this situation against their own will.
How do you think that this has impacted them?
Separation and divorce
Separation and divorce are by no stretch of the imagination, a conflicting and challenging situation to be in, not to mention the added hardship of having children as part of that equation.
So what is a high-conflict separation or divorce?
Previous research has shown that high-conflict separation or divorce often refers to verbal or physical altercations between parents as witnessed by the child.
It can feel like a tug of war for children who are in the centre and have parents pulling on opposite ropes, which can be extremely overwhelming for a child.
What does the research say about how a high-conflict separation and divorce can affect children?
Previous findings from research date back to the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and suggest that children are not necessarily negatively affected by living in a single-parent family but more so by the conflict witnessed.
Much of the research has shown that family conflict, especially parental conflict, can harm children in the following ways.
Children who find themselves caught in the middle are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
Jekielek (1998) used data from a longitudinal study which concluded that parental conflict had a consistently significant negative impact on child anxiety and depression four years later, suggesting that parental conflict has enduring effects on child well-being.
Furthermore, studies have concluded that children experience less anxiety and depression when their high-conflict, married parents’ divorce.
Their future relationships with others
Long term exposure to high conflict can have an adverse effect, especially as children may observe parents engaging in this behaviour and replicate in their relationships (Gager, Yabiku & Linver, 2016).
These children also tend to have impaired relationships with peers. Furthermore, the poor role modelling demonstrated by their parents leads these kids to have no idea what it means to have real friendships, and their expectations of friends can become quite distorted.
Their self-esteem, self-concept and identity
A study by Raschke and Raschke (1979) found that family conflict can be detrimental to their self-concept.
This has since been supported by other research which has found that high conflict post-divorce may lead to parents being alienated from their children (Dunne & Hendrick, 1994).
This can negatively impact children’s self-esteem and self-sufficiency in adulthood (Ben-Ami & Baker, 2012).
Their behaviour including risk-taking
Evidence suggests that children experiencing their parents’ divorce or separation is associated with lower levels of wellbeing (Amato, 2010) and more behavioural problems (Hetherington & Kelly 2002; Weaver & Schofield, 2015).
In particular, it can affect interpersonal skills (Kim, 2011) and externalising behaviours such as conduct problems (Kelly & Emery, 2003; Kim, 2011; Weaver & Schofield, 2015)
Their success or performance in school and daily life
Children may also underperform academically as a result of their parent’s break-up by getting poor grades, using drugs, becoming defiant, withdrawing from the world, acting out in class and stop doing activities that generally please them.
What can parents do to support their children who have witnessed high-conflict situations?
Parents may see the conflict as necessary when going through divorce proceedings, but you need to remember to think about the impact that this may be having on the child or children.
So the fact of the matter is simple; it is the conflict, and not necessarily the divorce, that puts your children at risk.
Supportive parenting strategies
A few supportive parenting strategies can go a long way to helping kids adjust to the changes brought about by divorce, reduce the psychological effects and maintain healthy and supportive relationships with your children.
Don’t put children in the middle. Children didn’t ask to be in this situation and don’t need a constant push and pull from parents.
Teach pro-social coping strategies and skills to help them adjust to what is happening. Offer reassurance at any opportunity. Children need reassurance that it isn’t their fault about what is happening.
Use consistent discipline when needed. Maintaining age-appropriate rules from both parents will offer stability and manage unwanted behaviour.
Monitor adolescence. As children enter adolescence, their hormones will kick in, and there may be further excuses for why they choose to act out including substance misuse and self-harm—Check-in with them and offer support where possible.
Empower your child to express themselves. Children need to be able to have a safe space to talk to their parents and express how they are feeling. They need warmth and comfort from both parents.
Get in touch
If you are going through a high conflict separation or divorce proceedings and need some support for yourself or your children, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with My Family Psychologist.
We offer specialised counselling services for adults, couples and children as well as mediation services. Get in touch and see how we can support you when you are going through a difficult time.
Family law advice
If you would like any family law advice please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist family lawyers.
Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of marriage and family, 72(3), 650-666.
Anon, (n.d.). How Children Cope with High Conflict Divorce: How Are They Harmed and What Can Parents Do to Help Them – Divorce – Support Resources for Coping and Moving on After Divorce. [online] Available at: https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/how-children-cope-with-high-conflict-divorce-how-are-they-harmed-and-what-can-parents-do-to-help-them/ [Accessed 13 Aug. 2020].
Ben-Ami, N., & Baker, A. J. (2012). The long-term correlates of childhood exposure to parental alienation on adult self-sufficiency and well-being. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 40(2), 169-183.
Dunne, J. E., & Hedrick, M. (1994). The parental alienation syndrome: An analysis of sixteen selected cases. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 21(3-4), 21-38.
Gager, C. T., Yabiku, S. T., & Linver, M. R. (2016). Conflict or divorce? Does parental conflict and/or divorce increase the likelihood of adult children’s cohabiting and marital dissolution? Marriage & Family Review, 52(3), 243–261.
Government of Canada, Department of Justice, Electronic Communications (2015). Studies of High Conflict and its Effect on Children – High-Conflict Separation and Divorce: Options for Consideration (2004-FCY-1E). [online] Justice.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/fl-lf/divorce/2004_1/p3.html [Accessed 24 Sep. 2019].
Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. WW Norton & Company.
Kelly, J. B., & Emery, R. E. (2003). Children’s adjustment following divorce: Risk and resilience perspectives. Family relations, 52(4), 352-362.
Kim, H. S. (2011). Consequences of parental divorce for child development. American Sociological Review, 76(3), 487-511.
Jekielek, S.M. (1998). Parental Conflict, Marital Disruption and Children’s Emotional Well-Being. Social Forces, 76(3), p.905.
Psychology Today. (n.d). Understanding the Effects of High-Conflict Divorce on Kids. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/better-divorce/201912/understanding-the-effects-high-confict-divorce-kids [Accessed 13 Aug. 2020]
Morin, A. (2017). The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children. [online] Verywell Family. Available at: https://www.verywellfamily.com/psychological-effects-of-divorce-on-kids-4140170. [Accessed 13 Aug. 2020]
Raschke, H.J. and Raschke, V.J. (1979). Family Conflict and Children’s Self-Concepts: A Comparison of Intact and Single-Parent Families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 41(2), p.367.
Weaver, J. M., & Schofield, T. J. (2015). Mediation and moderation of divorce effects on children’s behaviour problems. Journal of family psychology, 29(1), 39.