We've all heard the nightmare divorce story: fighting constantly until this marriage falls apart, only for the fighting to increase once the divorce process begins, even though the parties have separated. In this business of family law, we call this type of divorce “high conflict.” These are the parties we, as attorneys and guardians ad litem, refer to counseling or some form of co-parenting therapy or education whenever possible.
The reason for that is there have been numerous studies conducted since the 1980's to determine just how this type of “high conflict divorce” affects the children who are innocently caught in the middle of such discord. After studying the effects of (1) parental absence, (2) economic disadvantages caused by the divorce and (3) family discord in these various studies, it was concluded almost every time that the children from high-conflict divorces, or those who experienced the most family discord, were most negatively affected. Here are three reasons why:
- Parents involved in a high-conflict divorce or post-divorce setting 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 worst of all, pulling the children into the middle of the 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, and often in front of the children. 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.
- 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 the parents, easily leads 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.
- 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 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 effects over the course of the children's lives.