Parental conflict is hard on children at any time, all the more so when their parents are separating or divorcing. And when the former spouses are unable to establish a cooperative, responsible co-parenting relationship with each other following the divorce, the negative impact on their children is compounded.
The good news however, is that separation and divorce need not be a catastrophic experience for children. A majority learn to adjust to the initial disruption of their family without many psychological and social scars and become well-functioning adults. Contributing factors to a child’s positive adjustment to separation and divorce, especially during the first year, are strongly associated with the degree of parental conflict to which a child has been exposed. Many studies have documented a correlation between parental conflict, it’s duration and resolution and a child’s stress levels, as well as post-divorce adjustment. When both the residential and non-residential parents are aware of the potentially harmful impact of exposing their conflicts to their children, they endeavor to shield them from such disputes. In the heat of separation and divorce demands, protecting children from emotional distress and frustrations requires parents to be able to work with their own emotions and those of their children, seek support from family and trusted friends, and/or a qualified therapist or divorce coach while pursuing healthy outlets. Creating a stable home life during this time of upheaval benefits everyone concerned.
When parental conflict becomes intense and frequent, the stress on the children mounts as well. Some parents have difficulty establishing boundaries between themselves and their children, so the children may often overhear or are witness to parental anger and aggression around ongoing conflicts. Especially when the disagreements concern them, emotional and behavioral difficulties in the children are likely to develop. Conversely, when parents model healthy conflict resolution for their children, through negotiation and compromise, it can enhance their social skills.
Not all expressions of conflict are overt however. Parents who model withdrawal or discourage open dialogue with their children around the separation and divorce issues are encouraging unhealthy internalization of their negative feelings. Better to encourage children to feel safe asking their questions and receiving answers that are clear and concise, without blaming or making harsh judgments or snide remarks about the other parent. Denigrating a parent puts a child smack in the middle of a loyalty conflict that children find extremely distressing.
Other examples of being caught in the middle include having to carry messages between parents, feeling disloyal by being pressured to answer questions about the other parent’s behavior, or hearing derogatory comments about the other parent.
Parents who are not able to separate their emotional needs from their childrens needs, cannot protect them from their own hurt and agitation. Rather than focusing on the child’s needs, such parents may confide in their children or turn to a particular child for comfort. This is known as parentification and places a tremendous burden on a child.
Moderate levels of instrumental parentification such as cooking meals, looking after their siblings or doing housework can teach a child responsibility, while moderate levels of emotional parentification such as comforting siblings, can teach a child empathy. High levels of parentification demands are associated with adjustment problems. For girls from high-conflict divorced families both types of parentification are associated with girls’ depressed and anxious behaviors; for boys, high levels of emotional parentification by fathers are associated with sons’ depression. (Heatherington).
There is a strong association between children’s mental health and parental conflict, even when children do not display awareness of the conflict. When a child is alienated from a parent or exposed to contentious child custody litigation or visitation battles or other failed parenting responsibilities, emotional and behavioral problems such as anxiety or depression, aggressiveness, or poor impulse control are likely to surface or increase.
Children often feel responsible for their parents separation and conflict and may try to intervene in the conflict. Ineffective parenting will increase their stress, which may be reflected in signs of guilt, sadness, manipulation, declining academic performance and problems with friends, phobias or compulsive behavior.
Helping parents help their children adjust to divorce includes guiding parents to move beyond their anger, reduce their parental conflicts and triangulation of the children to develop agreement on rules and predictable expectations that minimize stress on their children, develop more effective parenting skills and foster a healthy connection between family members during divorce, and a positive adaptation to the relational changes post-divorce. Such cooperative parenting also encourages healthy self-esteem and effective communication skills not only in their children but in their parents as well.
Possible Stress Reactions in Children* Age: Signs of Stress Birth to 3 Regression, separation anxieties, eating and sleeping problems, tantrums, aggression, possessiveness, withdrawal. Preschool Irritability, “too good behavior,” aggression, need for physical contact, sadness, self-blame, fear of abandonment and loss of parental love. Ages 6 to 12 Sadness, fear of abandonment, guilt, anger, fantasizing reconciliation. Adolescent Open hostility at parents, acting-out behavior, school difficulties, aggression or withdrawal, difficulty with peers, dependency on others. *Adapted from Kersey, k. (1986) Helping your child handle stress. Washington, D.C.: Acropolis. Heatherton, E.M. (1999) (Ed.), Coping with divorce, single parenting and remarriage.