• Phoebe Baker

Supporting Children Through a High-Conflict Divorce


We recently discussed the benefits of putting together a parenting plan with your ex-partner to help you navigate the transition and difficulties of navigating your new lives as single parents. Sometimes coordinating a parenting plan quite simply can’t be done due to there being too much hostility in the separation, where partners are only communicating through their legal teams. A High Conflict Divorce or separation refers to a situation where the child witnesses verbal or physical altercations between their parents. It could otherwise refer to a child being in the middle of an intense legal battle.

There is no doubt that a hostile home environment for a child has considerable negative effects on the emotional development of the child, no matter what age. When parents are going through a divorce or separation, they will often think it’s the separation that is causing the most damage, however it is actually the nature of the separation and conflict involved that causes issues for the children. Many children will blame themselves for parental conflict or will think they have a duty to fix it. This is wrong. Consequences for children involved in conflict may include the following:

· Anxiety and depression

· May impact future relationships with others – developing a lack of trust in friendships and romantic relationships and copying negative behaviours they have witnessed from their parents

· Self-esteem issues

· Risk taking (taking drugs, binge drinking, smoking, criminal behaviour)

· Poor performance (lacking focus on school or university studies)

Common effects on each age group:

  • Young children: it’s hard to explain to them why they have to travel between two homes. Seeing the breakdown of the relationship and watching their parents stop loving one another, they may wonder whether their parents love for them will wane also

  • Pre-teen children may question whether the divorce was their fault and they may wonder whether they misbehaved or thought they did something to cause the separation

  • Teenagers may become frustrated about a separation and the changes it makes to their lives. They may act out, become resentful and blame one or both parents for the breakdown of the relationship and family ties

Here are some tips for parenting in the middle of a high-conflict separation to do damage control in order to minimise the effects of the circumstances on your children:

· Don’t deny your child personal time with both of their parents

No matter how much you abhor your ex-partner, you must understand the need for your child to maintain a relationship with both parents. Remember that your ex-partner is a parent that your children love. This will prevent them from having behavioural problems, grow up happier and emotionally healthier. You child deserves to know and respect both parents. Your child’s time with the other parent may be a blessing for you and will give you some time to decompress. Note that there might be cases where a parent is neglectful or abusive. In this case the situation should be treated differently, and you may need legal guidance on this.

· Remember your priorities

Children first, always let this be your focus.

· Think about the messages you are sending your children

They don’t need to know all the intimate details about why you split, or stipulations in the court case. It is not their responsibility to know these things. It’s fine for them to be aware that you are upset by try to not expose them to negative emotions. Don’t do anything that will damage their relationship with the other parent – don’t put them down in front of the children to alienate them, you will be causing a considerable amount of damage by doing this

· Don’t make your child your confidant or friend

Your child didn’t sign up to be part of your divorce, they are in this situation against their will so don’t be unfair and expect your child to hold the burden of your complex emotions as a result of the divorce. This is called “reverse parenting” where the parent seeks protection and support from the child, resulting in the child sacrificing their own needs. The consequence – robbing your child of their childhood. If you need to vent or talk through your issues with your ex, talk to a friend or trained professional instead. Your child will thank you.

· Don’t treat your child as a messenger

Discuss issues either directly with your ex-partner or with a meditator. Using the children as the messengers gives them another extra burden to carry and they can often miscommunicate the errors due to lack of maturity, experience but they can also intentionally manipulate the messages due to their own feelings about each parent and perhaps wanting to protect one parent over the other. In a high-conflict separation, children are often used as pawns to make the other person feel guilty. Do whatever it takes to remove your child from the middle of the conflict.

· Don’t over-indulge the child to try and become the favourite parent or make up for shortcomings

It is all too common for divorced parents to over-indulge their children with extravagant gifts either to try and get the child to choose their side or make up for shortcomings in their care. This will form unhealthy attachments

· Don’t force the child to choose loyalties

Your child won’t be equipped to deal with the emotions that come with their parents forcing them to choose sides. It will set them up to have unhealthy relationships with their parents

· Don’t violate the right to privacy

Asking your children to spy on your ex-spouse or partner is a violation of privacy and is strongly discouraged. This will place even more stress on the child and they may end up developing negative behaviours themselves

· Adopt supportive parenting strategies

o Check in regularly with their thoughts and emotions to make sure their needs are being met and they feel they have a safe space in which to discuss their concerns

o Perhaps you might offer for them to see a paid professional, this might be participating in therapy as a family or individually. The therapist will be experienced and will guide you through establishing healthy parent-child relationships and will help you to regulate emotions. It might be worth going to a few sessions on your own also to give you coping strategies for dealing with your angry or hostile ex-spouse so that you don’t project your negative emotions onto the children

o Keep age appropriate discipline and routine to maintain stability

o Provide reassurance to your child. Make sure they know they are still loved, cherished and protected. Especially ensure they are clear that the anger isn’t directed towards them and none of it is their fault

· Too much parental co-dependence may be unhealthy when it comes to forming bonds post-divorce or separation

Some reports have shown that boys could have a tendency to become “surrogate spouses” to their mothers, forming what one would called an enmeshed relationship. He becomes the mother’s carer and confidant, which means that the son will sacrifice his own needs to prioritise those of the mother. It might make it impossible for father and son to remain close and the son might have trouble forming relationships of his own in adulthood. This “can cause harm to the sons gender identification and self-esteem… rarely does a boy hold a negative opinion of his father without holding the same opinion of himself” (Warshak, 1992)

If the situation above sounds familiar, make an appointment to have some coaching today. Our team of trained professionals will help you to navigate this painful experience and will give you the tools to cope, in order to create a better life for you and your children. Email info@ds-collective.com

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