According to researchers, approximately thirty percent of all divorces have periods of intense parent to parent conflict. These parents are the biggest cause for their children’s struggles with divorce. When parents are in high conflict divorce, children suffer. The research clearly supports this basic fact. It is these families who also end up in the court system, and are often engaged with Child Protective Services or with mental health professionals.
These are also the families who often cause the most distress for family court judges, law guardians, matrimonial attorneys, and mental health professionals. Often, these families contain parents who struggle with depression, substance abuse, personality disorders, and a wealth of dysfunctional patterns.
Mental Health Professionals who have worked with these families are aware that the intense conflict is unhealthy for children, yet it can be helpful to gain clarity about the degree to which such high conflict puts children at risk.
As you read this, please be careful NOT to minimize the fact that a range of factors have been associated with the struggles of children following divorce. Yet, there are a number of consistent findings which demand that we pay greater attention to the role of intense conflict upon children.
Why? Because we can do something about this before the effects are so devastating for children.
In this article, I will not offer an exhaustive review of the research. Instead, my focus is upon the intense impact of conflict, and the options that we have to potentially help children in these situations.
1. Parent to parent conflict is bad for children. There is some findings in the divorce literature that can be debated. This is one which simply cannot be questioned. The data are overwhelming (Ayoub, Detsch and Maraganore, 1999) (Amato & Keith, 1991) Research is also clear that as the level of conflict increases, so do the difficulties that children experience (Sales, Manber and Rohman, 1992). These findings are clear not only for post divorce relationships, but this also applies to intact family situations. When there is increased high conflict divorce, children’s adjustments deteriorate.
2. Parental conflict is more of a threat than is the divorce. There is a growing body of literature which argues that divorce does create challenges for children. Yet, when handled well, these are challenges which children tend to adjust to in a reasonable fashion. What children are not able to handle is the conflict between parents. Again, this is upheld in the research that looks at intact families, where violence or extreme conflict in the home is one of the most reliable predictors of poor adjustment by a child.
3. Witnessing violence between parents is powerfully unsettling. Children who witness violence between their parents are clearly at greatest risk for future adjustment difficulties (Amato & Keith, 1991; Ayoub et al, 1999; Jekielek, 1998)In fact, it appears that the witnessing of violence in the home opens up the source of fear and concern for children that is difficult to overcome. While ongoing exposure is clearly the most traumatic, even exposure to a single episode of violence is potentially traumatic to children. It is important to note that there is some literature that suggests that children who witness violence in the home become at greater risk of being victims of physical abuse themselves.
However, the findings in the literature vary greatly on this variable. However, Apple and Holden reviewed thirty one studies of the co occurrence of spousal abuse and physical abuse (1998). They found a forty percent co-occurrence. Thus, in situations where children are witnessing spousal abuse, there appears to be a forty percent risk of child abuse. While this is certainly higher than the overall average, it is also not nearly high as has been speculated at times in the past.
4. Substance abuse increases the risk of violence, and thus the risk of maladjustment for children. While this is common sense, it needs to be stated. When there is abuse in the home, there is an increased risk of violence. It is unclear as to the precise degree that substance abuse puts children at risk in a high conflict situation. Yet we do know that substance abuse increases the risk of violence.The risk of violence increases the threat to children.
What can we do?
As professionals working with high conflict families, it often feels as if our hands are tied with regard to protecting children. Most of us have probably experienced frustrating efforts to educate parents about the need to reduce their volatility, and yet find children exposed to repeated episodes of conflict or violence. Nonetheless, it appears that certain guidelines can be put in place, which helps to reduce the risk of exposure. These include:
1. Keeping high conflict parents apart. The easiest way to prevent conflict with these volatile families is to make certain that their exposure to one another is limited. These are the situations which often require mutual exchange points, the use of family members to assist in exchanges, and the absence of direct contact. While it is somewhat appealing to argue that counseling should help these parents deal with one another, it is also true that many of these families have emotional or psychological disorders, and simply do not seem to learn or benefit from treatment. If the focus is then upon protecting children, it is essential to simply keep these families apart.
2. When volatile parents are still together, encourage rapid solutions that protect the rights of both parents. There are times when highly volatile parents remain together as they engage in their legal struggles. At times, these situations involve histories of spousal abuse. At other times, they are simply highly volatile situations with many episodes of screaming and yelling. All of these are harmful to children. When prioritizing the needs of children, it can be helpful to remain cognizant of the ongoing damage that this does to children. When constantly keeping this in mind, I can then comfortably encourage parents to establish schedules which avoid their direct contact with one another. When there is a long history of sustained conflict, there is little reason to believe that this will change without the benefit of some substantial period of time.
3. Find children treatment with a trauma specialist. Children who are exposed to intense conflict or violence in the home often end up with diagnostically significant symptomology. Many parents are in denial of the need for treatment. Yet, the research would suggest that the exposure to such situations are traumatic to children. When approached as such, there may not be the need for ongoing long term supportive counseling. Instead, treatment from a specialist prepared to handle trauma can be the most effective. With many of the more encouraging intervention strategies available, treatment does not need to be a relentless series of sessions with a therapist who repeatedly reviews the history of trauma, and the child who grows increasingly disinterested in counseling.
The bottom line here is quite simple. When there is credible indications of violence, and children have been exposed to this, there is the utmost urgent need to help get children out of these situations. The more we do so, the more symptomology will be eliminated. When this is combined with effective treatment, focused on reduction of the traumatic memories, then children can heal.
By Randy Cale
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