Parental conflict can have significant negative effects on children, whether the parents stay married or divorce.
In either case, intense parental conflict is associated with mental health problems among their children, while divorce alone does not seem to have a significant negative effect on children’s development. However, children who are young when their parents divorce have some difficulty forming intimate adult relationships, are often unhappy with their marriages, and have higher divorce rates compared with children from intact families. Hetherington found that even twenty-five years after a divorce, children from high-conflict families experienced fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of change, and fear of conflict in their daily lives.
Typical Adjustment Problems of Children
Generally, children raised in high-conflict homes and children who have experienced a high-conflict divorce show signs of anxiety and withdrawal or aggression and delinquency. Signs of withdrawal include social phobia, generalized anxiety, and depression, while signs of acting out include antisocial personality disorder, drug use, delinquency, early sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and dropping out of school.
Definitions of Marital Conflict
There is no well accepted definition of marital conflict, although most investigators agree that high-conflict marriages are characterized by physical fighting, arguing, or total avoidance of conflict. The arguments are mostly about money, children, or sex. Frequent intense marital conflict is associated with negative child development, and the more intense and longer the conflict continues, the greater the harm, whether the parents divorce or stay married. In fact, parental conflict often increases during and after a litigated divorce, although couples who opt for a collaborative divorce are more likely to co-parent effectively following their divorce and cause less harm to their children as a result of getting a collaborative divorce. Studies show that children separated from high-conflict parents and placed in a low-conflict foster home are better adjusted than children who remain with one of parent following a high-conflict divorce.
Different Effects of Parental Conflict among Boys and Girls
Several studies have found that boys are affected by parental conflict differently from girls. Generally, parental conflict produces aggression, delinquency, drug use, and acting-out among boys while similar parental conflict produces anxiety, withdrawal, and depression among girls. High-conflict couples are generally inconsistent in their discipline, present their children with poor models of healthy adult behavior, and place more stress on their children than couples who are well adjusted and don’t constantly fight in front of their children. Attachment bonds may be damaged by high-conflict parents, although modeling and inconsistent discipline are more likely to be the major factors causing damage to young children.
Damage Begins Early
It doesn’t matter if the parents are married, divorced, or living separately, parental fighting is damaging to children. Moreover, children recognize and suffer from parental fighting from an early age. Parent’s calm arguing is not harmful to children, but when parental conflict is frequent, bitter, insulting, or physically aggressive, it has profound negative effects on child development. Children show distress when their parents fight and may develop clinical signs of anxiety, anger, and depression or delinquency, fighting, dropping out of school, or drug use. If parental fighting continues these children often suffer health problems, disturbed sleep, poor school performance or develop hostility, aggression, drug use, and early sexual activity. They may also develop poor social and cognitive skills that damage their chances of forming a healthy marital relationship or succeeding in a career.
Minimizing Damage to Children
There are several things parents can do to minimize the negative effects of divorce on their children. When parents divorce, children and adolescents face changes, including loss of love between their parents, break-up of the family, traveling between two households, and the absence of one parent between visits. However, a divorce need not be damaging to children if the parents can learn to get along during and after the divorce—and they are more likely to learn how to effectively co-parent if they opt for a collaborative divorce. A litigated divorce tends to intensify young children’s dependence on their parents while accelerating the independence of adolescents.
Young children often regress to earlier stages of behavior while adolescents may act out and become angry during a high-conflict divorce. Children with good sibling relationships and strong attachment to both parents are more likely to avoid being damaged by a high-conflict divorce. On the other hand, when children blame themselves for the fighting or are scapegoated by their parents, these guilt-ridden or scapegoated children often become aggressive or delinquent later in life. In contrast, if children feel threatened by parental fighting, they are likely to show emotional problems such as anxiety or depression.
Young Children Regress
High-conflict damages young children’s trust in their parents while making them insecure and dependent on their parents for support and security. The most difficult adjustment for young children in high conflict divorces is the transition from one household to another, because they are forced to leave one parent to visit the other and parental fighting often occurs during the transition. Shifting from one household to another also activates young children’s fears of abandonment and loss of love when their parents are fighting.
Changing households induces insecurity, uncertainty, and instability into these children’s life at a time when they are vulnerable and suffer considerable anxiety and grief because of high parental conflict. Very young children may start wetting the bed and showing other signs of regressing to earlier developmental stages. Young children need stable and recurring routines to help them through the trauma of a high-conflict divorce. A supportive parenting style helps children adjust to divorce more quickly and a strong attachment to both parents is very helpful.
Older children generally assert their independence from their parents and connect with their peer group during a high-conflict divorce. Adolescents become more self-sufficient, separate from their parents, and center their social life around friends. Older children often act out, become angry at their parents, rebel at parental discipline, and strive to be self-sufficient because they don’t trust their high-conflict parents. Adolescents mask their grief with anger and resentment. The primary task for parents of adolescents is to help them be responsible, independent, and develop good judgment so they can grow into independent and productive adults, and the best way to do that is to avoid fighting during and after a divorce.
What Parents Can Do
Parents need to calmly discuss their marital or divorce issues when the children are not around and be polite to each other when they are with their children. Also, both parents should focus on maintaining a positive relationship with each of their children and not blame their spouse for the divorce. Most important is to co-parent in a peaceful manner and avoid conflict or criticism of the other parent around the children. Never put children in the middle of a divorce or force them to choose between their parents. The parents should not confide in them or use as a support group during a divorce.
Children need two adult parents who can take care of them, not needy or angry friends. Be consistent and discuss discipline with your co-parent or your children will play one of you off against the other. Adolescents need guidance and discipline most of all during and after a divorce when they are trying to become independent. Help your children feel loved and secure by not fighting in front of them. Discuss feelings and teach them coping skills to deal with life tasks. Seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed. If you see serious signs of withdrawal, depression, anxiety, or acting out in your children, talk with your pediatrician, school counselor, or mental health professional about how to deal with the problem.