We’ve all heard the nightmare divorce story. Constant fighting until the marriage falls apart. A separation occurs, but as soon as the litigation begins, the fighting and tension is amped up a hundred times overnight. Each parent is vying to be the “chosen” primary parent and the children are often caught directly in the middle having their loyalties tested daily. For anyone practicing in the family law arena, this is easily identifiable as a “high-conflict” divorce. In almost every case of this kind, mental health professionals are an essential addition to the “divorce team.”

Over the last four decades, there has been an overwhelming amount of research done to determine how these high-conflict divorces affect the children caught between their parents. After studying the effect of (1) parental absence, (2) economic disadvantages caused by the divorce, and (3) family discord, it was concluded by almost every study that the children from high-conflict divorces were most negatively affects in these three ways:

  1. Parents who are involved in a high-conflict divorce or post-divorce setting tend to teach their children poor conflict resolution and social skills. Instead of exhibiting for their children critical life skills such as active listening, negotiating, and compromising skills, they instead exhibit behaviors such as overreacting, blaming, defensiveness, threatening, and arguably worse of all, pulling the children into the middle of a fight. For example, high-conflict parents are quick to yell, threaten the other co-parent, or use profanities when things don’t go the way they would like. Often times they do all of this without regard for whether the children are present to see and hear their reactions. They will react this way even though common sense and logic would seem to indicate this won’t “win” them a positive result in the end.

  2. When children witness their parents engaged in chronic high-conflict interactions, they’re more likely to feel insecure, guilty, and helpless. These feelings tend to lead to the children being less involved with their parents overall as well as having a sense of rejection from others. Children have a natural tendency to first blame themselves for their parents’ breakup, which when combined with a high level of continued conflict between their parents, easily leads to feelings of guilt and helplessness for the children that they (a) could not keep their parents together and (b) they cannot make their parents happy enough to keep them from fighting once they separate.

  3. Children who have been dealing with high levels of conflict between their parents for extended periods of time may develop a sense of protectiveness and loyalty to one parent over the other depending on their perception, right or wrong though it may be, of which parent is the ‘aggressor’ and which parent is the ‘victim.’ This, in turn, can lead to a strained relationship with the parent viewed as the ‘aggressor’ which could lead to symptoms of alienation, whether or not it is intentional.

While divorce is hardly a “happy” time in anyone’s life, parents should work to fully understand the effect the divorce (and their conduct during the divorce) will have on their children. If they see any of the above symptoms or behaviors exhibited by children during or following the divorce, they should consult with a licensed therapist experienced in working with children of high-conflict divorces to assure the proper support is put into place as soon as possible to avoid long-term negative effects over the course of the children’s lives.