High-conflict Separation and Divorce – the Effect on Children


This analysis is divided into two parts, studies of the effect of conflict on children in intact and divorced families, and studies on the impact of high conflict in children of separated or divorced families.

Studies of Parental Conflict in General

Raschke and Raschke (1979) compared 289 grade school children from intact and single-parent families to test whether family structure made a difference in children’s self-concept (i.e. the child’s own attitude or feeling about himself or herself) and whether children who perceived greater conflict in their families would have a poorer self-concept. The authors found support for their proposition that while children are not adversely affected by family structure, such as living in a single parent family, family conflict can be detrimental to their self-concept. It was not possible to determine whether the conflict perceived by the children was verbal, physical or both, although both kinds of conflict were probably damaging to them.

Emery (1982) reviewed the connections between marital turmoil and behavioural problems in children. How one defined conflict, whether in intact or broken families, was a matter of controversy. Three theoretically relevant aspects of conflict are the form of the conflict (e.g. hitting, arguing, avoidance), the content of the conflict (e.g. sex, child rearing, money) and its duration. Both the amount and type of inter-parental conflict to which the child is exposed would seem to be important determinants of the effect of conflict on the child. Conflict that is openly hostile exposes the child to more, presumably problematic, parental interactions, as does conflict that lasts for a long period of time. Emery concluded, in part, that marital turmoil is more strongly related to boys’ than girls’ maladaptive behaviour, with the caveat that girls are likely to be just as troubled by marital turmoil as boys, but may demonstrate their feelings in a manner more appropriate to their sex role, by becoming withdrawn, for example. The age of a child did not appear to be an important determinant of the effects of marital turmoil. An especially warm relationship with at least one parent can mitigate, though not eliminate, the effects of marital turmoil on children. There was some evidence that changes in discipline as a result of divorce led boys, especially, to be less compliant with parental commands than children in intact families. Emery summarized that parents involved in conflict with each other are probably poorer models, are more inconsistent in their discipline, and place more stress on their children.

Camara and Resnick (1989) studied a sample of 82 families, including divorced and two-parent families. The study used a composite of inter-parental conflict made up of seven ratings: the degree of positive affect expressed by the father towards the mother, the degree of positive affect expressed by the mother toward the father, the degree of negative affect expressed by the father towards the mother, the degree of negative affect expressed by the mother toward the father, the degree of hostility and anger in the home, the extent to which conversations between parents were stressful or tense, and the degree of both overt and subtle conflict in the relationship. Even three years after the separation of the parents, there were significant differences in social behaviours among groups. Children from divorced families showed the highest levels of aggression and behavioural problems and the lowest level of pro-social behaviour and general self-esteem. However, the results for both divorced and non-divorced families regarding conflict resolution were similar. Parents who reported their spouses using verbal attack, avoidance, or physical anger in resolving disagreements tended to have lower levels of cooperation and higher levels of conflict. The outcomes of disagreements were more likely to result in an escalation of the conflict. Parents who were able to compromise in resolving conflicts were more likely to cooperate on parental issues. Therefore, regardless of the level of conflict between the spouses, cooperation between the adults in their parental roles was associated with closer, warmer and more communicative relationships between children and their non-custodial parent in divorced families and between children and their mothers in non-divorced families.

Morrison and Coiro (1999) examined two hypotheses. When there is high conflict in a marriage, do children whose parents divorce exhibit a decrease in behaviourial problems, while children whose parents have low levels of marital conflict during the marriage exhibit an increase in behavioural problems after divorce? Do children whose high-conflict families remain together show greater increases in behavioural problems than those whose parent’s divorce? The authors used a sample of 727 children from data in the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY). The authors used responses about the frequency that a spouse argued about nine topics, such as the children, money, chores and responsibilities. They found that prior reports of high levels of marital conflict had a large and statistically significant adverse effect on children’s behavioural problems. Indeed, the adverse effect of frequent marital quarrels was greater than the deleterious effect of separation and divorce. However, there was no indication of a benefit to the children who left the high-conflict family. Furthermore, the greatest increase in behavioural problems was observed among children whose parents remained married despite frequent quarrels.

Conger, Harold, Fincham and Osborne (1998) conducted two studies to simultaneously examine direct and indirect links between marital conflict and child adjustment, incorporating children’s perceptions of the family relationship in examining these links. In both studies, the hypothesis that marital conflict influences perceptions of parent-child relations was supported. Children who have witnessed inter-parental hostility appear to interpret parent-child conflict as more hostile and threatening than children who have not witnessed such conflict. The authors stressed, however, the need for longitudinal studies in this area.

Jekielek (1998) used data from a longitudinal study (the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth) involving a sample of 1,640 children to examine the effects of marital conflict and marital disruption on children. The results suggested that both parental conflict and marital disruption are critical predictors of children’s emotional well-being. The benefit of an intact family status for child anxiety and depression decreases as parental conflict increases. 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. Children whose parents were in higher conflict in 1988 but had divorced or separated in 1992 scored lower on scales of anxiety and depression than children whose parents reported similar levels of high conflict in 1992 and stayed married.

3.2  Studies of Conflict Between Separated or Divorced Parents

Shaw and Emery (1987), in a study of 42 separated mothers of low economic status and their school-age children, concluded that the level of parental acrimony was related to children’s behavioural problems. The level of acrimony was measured by an “acrimony scale” consisting of 25 areas of potential conflict between separated or divorced parents, including visitation, custody, and general level of animosity. Parental acrimony was found to be significantly related to children’s perceived cognitive competence.

Nelson (1989), using a sample of 121 divorced families, asked whether the type of custody predicted levels of hostility, conflict and communication between parents two to three years after the conflict. The purpose was to test the hypothesis offered by proponents of joint custody, namely, that joint custody arrangements would be predictive of more frequent communication between parents and of lower levels of hostility and conflict two to three years after separation. The finding was that, while joint custody promoted greater access to the children and therefore more parental communication, parents also experienced greater hostility and conflict in their relationship.

Mathis (1998) investigated why certain families seemed to fail in mediation and concluded that failure was approximately 75 percent higher in situations when one or both parents remained “undifferentiated” from the other and still thought of the other parent as “we” instead of “you and I.” In other words, these parents often could not accept the dissolution of the marriage and still wanted active involvement with the other parent. The more differentiated parent, the one who had been able to establish a self-sufficient life after divorce, often resented the intrusion by the other parent and became less cooperative and more hostile.

Madden-Derdich, Leonard and Christopher (1999) designed a study to determine if high levels of conflict may be attributable to the difficult task for divorcing couples of being unable to relinquish their marital roles and still find effective ways to parent together. The idea is that the failure to establish relationship boundaries that clearly define the former partner as a co-parent but not as a spouse is a major source of post-divorce conflict. A random sample of 180 recently divorced couples was used. For both mothers and fathers, those who reported more ambiguous relationship boundaries with their former spouses also experienced a higher level of co-parental conflict. However, mothers’ and fathers’ views about the predictors of boundary ambiguity in the post-divorce period differed. For mothers, the level of emotional intensity toward the former spouse (i.e. feelings of love or hate) and power and control variables (e.g. financial strain) were predictors of boundary ambiguity. For fathers, however, only the level of emotional intensity towards the former spouse was such a predictor.

Johnston, Kline and Tschann (1989) examined the relative levels of communication and conflict between parents in litigating families who had been unable to settle their differences within one to four years after the legal dispute. A sample of 100 children was used. The Strauss Conflict Scale, comprising 18 behavioural items, measured parental conflict. The verbal aggression scale included insults, swearing, sulking, stomping out, doing something to spite the other, and threatening to strike. The physical aggression scale included throwing or smashing objects, pushing, slapping, kicking, beating up, and threatening with or using a knife or gun. Thirty-five of the children were in joint custody and 65 in sole custody at the follow-up. While there was no clear evidence that children were better adjusted in either type of custody, joint custody was highly related to more frequent access. The authors found consistent evidence that children who had more frequent access were more emotionally troubled and behaviourally disturbed. Children who shared more days each month with each parent were perceived by their parents as being significantly more depressed, withdrawn and uncommunicative, and more aggressive. Older children were more enmeshed in parental conflicts. This was consistent with previous analyses which showed that as children develop the cognitive capacity for self-reflexive thinking and perceive the opposing views of their disputing parents, they become more vulnerable to acute loyalty conflicts.

In contrast, Bender (1994: 127) argued that even when parents are in high conflict, there is a case to be made for joint custody:

Research has shown that the relationship which the child had with each parent was much more influential in predicting successful adjustment outcomes, than was the quality of the relationship between the parents. Consequently, even if the parents are “warring” on each other, if both retain a relationship with the child, the child should be afforded the adjustment opportunities of good relationships with both parents.

Bender (1994) believed that detailed joint custody agreements, which left little or nothing to negotiate, actually tended to reduce stress and that both parents were likely to demonstrate high levels of cooperation when detailed agreements were written. He therefore stressed the importance of detailed joint custody agreements in high-conflict situations.

Ayoub, Deutsch and Maraganore (1999) examined the factors that contribute to the emotional distress of children in high-conflict divorce from the perspective of a guardian ad litem (GAL). Sample data from 105 children were collected from GALs, who are frequently appointed in high-conflict cases. High conflict was coded for the following criteria: a history of chronic and/or forceful domestic violence or parent-to-parent physical abuse; police or protective services involvement in domestic disputes; hospital visits for injuries stemming from violence, murder, threats of suicide, extensive degradation of one parent by another; and rigid inability to discuss the children and their well-being. Medium inter-parental conflict was coded for any of the following criteria parents are generally disrespectful, engage in name-calling and insult each other in front of the children, and parents are hostile toward each other but less deliberately (less pre-meditation and sadism) or less frequently than parents in high conflict. The study revealed that children in families with high marital conflict are more likely to have high levels of emotional distress. In the face of considerable marital conflict, exposure to child maltreatment alone does not significantly increase the child’s emotional distress. However, when coupled with the experience of witnessing domestic violence, the presence of additional forms of child maltreatment results in a significant increase of symptoms of emotional distress in the child.

Schmidtgall, King, Zarski and Cooper (2000) examined, in part, whether there was a relationship between parental conflict and the prevalence of depression for women who experienced parental conflict. The sample was made up of 52 female undergraduate students in a midwestern American university. The results indicated that perceived conflict in the divorcing family was related to symptoms of depression for women in their adult years. As ratings of perceived conflict increased, reports of depressive symptoms also increased. However, the study noted that there were also other factors that contributed to women’s symptoms of depression.

Johnston, Campbell and Tall (1985) used data on 80 divorcing families with 100 children to develop a typology of factors contributing to impasse in divorce. At the external level are unholy alliances and coalitions-the dispute can be solidified by the support of friends, kin and helping professionals. These unholy alliances and coalitions include extended kin involvement and tribal warfare, when the extended family (such as the spouse’s parents) took it upon themselves to right the wrongs of the separation; coalitions with helping professionals, in which alliances with therapists and counsellors fuelled the fight; and involvement with the legal process where, for example, adversarial attorneys take on the case and engage in tactical warfare with each other. Interactional elements include the legacy of a destructive marital relationship, in which each spouse while married had come to view the other in limited, negative terms; and traumatic or ambivalent separations in which the ex-spouses view each other in a polarized negative light or seem to maintain an idealized image of the other and are engaged in a never-ending search for ways of holding together their shattered dreams. Intrapsychic elements include the conflict as a defence against a narcissistic insult, where the central reason for the dispute is to salvage injured self-esteem or more primitive narcissistic grandiosity; a defence against experiencing a sense of loss, to ward off the emptiness that came from relinquishing each other; a need to ward off of helplessness brought about by the desertion of the other spouse; and disputes that were a defence against the parents’ guilt over feeling that they could have tried harder to save the marriage. The majority of parents in this study presented traits of character pathology, some clearly having personality disorders. In these cases, the motivation for the dispute derived more from their enduring personality characteristics, such as a need to fight, than from the experience of separation or the needs of the child. The children in these families took on a magnified importance because their parents got a great deal of emotional support and companionship from them.

Whiteside (1996) conducted a review of the literature concerning the custody of children five years old and younger. He pointed out that many divorcing couples experience disagreement, tension and hostility, particularly during the first two years after separation. Yet, it is the interaction within chronically high-conflict divorced families that causes the most concern. These interactions are characterized by frequent arguments that are not effectively resolved, blaming, incidents of physical attack, denigration and sabotage of the other parent’s relationship with the child, unclear boundaries, low parental esteem, and neglectful or rigid and authoritarian parenting styles. He argued that, ideally, studies should incorporate multiple dimensions of conflict, but many focus on only one aspect of it. The review considered various studies on the frequency of conflict, the content of conflict, the exposure of children to the conflict, the mode of conflict expression, and conflict resolution patterns. Some studies found that a higher incidence of conflict characterizes the post-divorce parenting of younger, as opposed to older, children, although given the small number of studies on this topic, it is difficult to evaluate the strength of this association. More important than the frequency of disagreements is the level of emotional hostility characterizing the disagreements. In general, researchers found that parents who engage in verbal attacks or physically violent behaviour against their former spouses risk a higher incidence of poor child adjustment. The review also considered the literature concerning the impact of parental conflict on children. One review of the literature concerning the impact of marital conflict on children’s functioning in married families concluded that children exposed to frequent and intense parental conflict experience a chronic stress level and may develop feelings of helplessness about their ability to positively affect events. Spousal conflict seems to be associated with certain negative emotional states in the parents, such as depression and anxiety. These emotional states may limit paternal and maternal abilities to be nurturing and responsive to their children. The author hoped that future research would shed light on the complex interrelationships between parental conflict, parental levels of individual psychological adjustment, parenting competence, and the child’s psycho-social adjustment.

In short, the literature indicates that parental conflict is a major source of harm to children, whether the children are in intact families or their parents have separated or divorced. Children whose parents have separated or divorced where there is a high level of conflict between the parents display greater behavioural problems than children from low- or medium-conflict divorced families.

Article by Department of Justice


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