conflict during separation and divorce

How conflict during separation and divorce affects children.

How conflict during separation and divorce affects children.

War! What is it good for? How conflict during separation and divorce affects children.

Imagine that you are about to go on the World’s Scariest roller coaster ride. You didn’t want to go on it at first but you have been told by others that not going on this roller coaster would be wrong decision to make. You have been arguing with your partner for the past six months about it and having a constant push and pull about whether to go on it, what that means if you decide not to go on it, whether this is a roller coaster you want to experience, whether you can afford to go on this ride and what you want to achieve by going on this ride. You decide that if 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 are part of that group of people who have witnessed all of your arguments about the roller coaster and have been involved in that process up to the point where they feel that they have no choice but to ride that roller coaster with you. The 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 are by no stretch of the imagination, a difficult and conflicting situation to be in, not to mention that added hardship of having children as part of that equation.

So what is high-conflict?

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 the opposite ropes which can be extremely overwhelming for a child.

What does research say about high-conflict?

Previous findings from research dates back to the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s 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 have an adverse effect on a children in the following ways.

Mental Health

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 own relationships (Gager, Yabiku & Linver, 2016). These children also tend to have impaired relationships with peers. Furthermore, the poor role modeling 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 well being (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 under perform 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 normally bring them pleasure.

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.

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 on children 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 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 may 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 an safe space to be able to talk to their parents and express how they are feeling. They need warmth and comfort from both parents.

If you are going through 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 specialist counselling services for adults, couples and children as well as mediation services. Call us and see how we can support you when you are going through a difficult time.


Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of marriage and family72(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 Mental Help [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 Therapy40(2), 169-183. 

Dunne, J. E., & Hedrick, M. (1994). The parental alienation syndrome: An analysis of sixteen selected cases. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage21(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 Review52(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] Available at Justice [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 relations52(4), 352-362. 

Kim, H. S. (2011). Consequences of parental divorce for child development. American Sociological Review76(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 Psychology Today [Accessed 13 Aug. 2020]

Morin, A. (2017). The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children. [online] Verywell Family. Available at Well Family. [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 behavior problems. Journal of family psychology29(1), 39.

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