Conflict is the most critical determining factor in children’s adjustment post-divorce, not the divorce itself or the residential parenting routine of custody.
High-conflict custody and visitation cases are often fueled by irrational emotional behavior, and children, exposed to high conflict custody conflicts, suffer tremendously because they are caught in a crossfire between two parents they love.
During the fight for custody the children are pulled from one side to the other and often results in the children feeling emotionally distant from both parents. They become isolated in a time when they need companionship more than ever. This phenomenon is called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a concept developed by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gardner in the 1970s. Dr. Gardner reviewed the scientific and legal literature about adults alienating the affections of one adult from another. When Dr. Gardner studied cases about alienation of children from a previously loved parent, there was ample evidence that this terrible process occurred all too often.
Children rate conflict between their parents as one of most stressful aspects of divorce because conflict is associated with child maladjustment. Children in divorced families, where the parents have low levels of conflict, adjust better than children in intact families with high levels of conflict. Conflict that is hostile, aggressive, lacks a resolution, and is related to the child is more upsetting to children, but this is unfortunately often the case.
Parents often divorce after unsuccessful attempts to resolve spousal conflict, and after a divorce, much of the conflict is related to issues of custody and visitation. This is further complicated when parents express their anger at their former spouse through the issues related to the child.
Children caught in the crossfire of custody conflict appears to be the factor that most accounts for associations between parental conflict and children’s adjustment problems after divorce. Children’s psychological reactions to their parents’ divorce depend on 1) the quality of the parent-child relationship before the divorce; 2) the intensity and duration of the parental struggle; and 3) the parents’ ability to prioritize the needs of the children.
Children learn at home how to resolve conflict and how to relate to others. The more conflict there is between the divorcing parents, the longer children hold on to the notion of their parents’ reconciliation is possible. Hence, healthy, constructive conflict resolution skills and processes such as collaborative divorce or divorce mediation benefit the divorcing parents and their children during and after the divorce.
While there are many well-intended parents, divorce is a difficult and stressful process. From the point of view of the child’s development and well being, the parents’ focus is clear: maintain a focus on the child’s best interests when they are vulnerable to disappointment, confusion, anger, anxiety, and guilt.
The children of divorcing parents can overcome their parent’s separation and learn to form healthy relationships as long as their parents demonstrate constructive conflict resolution skills and create workable co-parenting schedules, responsibilities, and priorities.