How Children Cope With High Conflict Divorce

In a high-conflict divorce, spouses go to war – a war that not only cripples them emotionally, destroys them mentally and bankrupts them financially, but also makes victims of their children. In the long run, the warring spouses pay a staggering price because they may never be able to restore their lives to healthy functioning. The War of the Roses, a 1989 American comedy film based on a novel by Warren Adler, follows a wealthy couple that by all appearances enjoys a perfect marriage until it decays into an outrageous and mutually destructive divorce battle.

Ongoing, unremitting hostility between adults, drawn-out or frequent court actions and interventions, such as restraining or no-contact orders, nasty custody battles punctuated with allegations of domestic violence, physical abuse, and/or sexual abuse – all characterize these wars of those who once loved that end at best (or at worst) in a Pyrrhic victory. Since the parents cannot talk to each other about the children and their care, the lives of the warring spouses entail fighting with the other parent, trying to avoid fighting with the other parent, talking with lawyers, talking with therapists, undergoing multiple parenting evaluations, and going to court.

About 10 percent of the divorcing couples suffer through a high-conflict divorce. And within that group another 10% or 1% of the total divorcing population is in ongoing high-conflict, unlikely to change.

A high conflict divorce is where marriage ends and war begins, according to Bob Livingstone, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in San Francisco. Livingston is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and an associate member of The California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists. He is also a Psychology Today verified therapist.

High conflict divorce damages children because they frequently unwittingly become pawns in this high stakes, emotional demolition. Children find different ways to cope when confronting a mother and father who despise each other. This hatred does not ease up over the passing of time; in fact, these bitter feelings persist even as the years go by.

Faced with a barrage of words, events and thoughts that they cannot deal with in any healthy way, the children try to please each parent, but find it impossible to do so over time, so they settle for short-term expediency. In other words, they tell the parents what they think the parents want to hear, which may differ entirely from what the child thinks. However, the child goes out of his or her way to bypass the extended conflict that becomes the tapestry of family life.

Understanding Conflict

Children erroneously learn that all conflict must be avoided. Of course some conflict is a normal facet of life that everyone learns to manage. The children come to believe that the only good relationship is one without conflict, which is impossible. In this routine of lying to please the parents, they become quite accomplished in telling parents what they think the adults want to hear, the children develop the ability to lie quickly and convincingly. They fabricate what is going on in the other parent's house and purposely, for example, avoid telling Dad they saw an R rated movie with Mom because he knows it will get Mom into trouble. The children strategize as a way to get their needs met. For instance, a child knows his mother does not want him to take any martial arts classes because she fears the violence. The child knows that Mom worries that Dad will try to enroll him in violent activities. The child then convinces Dad to enroll him in a class that teaches how to be safe without using violence. The child then goes back to Mom telling her of this development. "Dad is not so bad after all, is he mom?" says the child, who then asks Dad to enroll him in a martial arts class because Mom will be less vigilant.

Parents in the middle of a high conflict divorce communicate poorly with each other because their discussion tends to be nasty and filled with disdain. The children learn that adults cannot successfully talk to each other or make plans for them. Therefore, they take this planning into their own hands. For example, the girl who wants to be in a school play tells both parents that they need to attend a special meeting in order for her to try out for the play.

Relationships With Peers
These children may have impaired relationships with peers. The poor role modeling demonstrated by their parents gives them no model about real friendships. Their expectations of friends can become quite distorted. These children tend to have no sense that true relationships are based on kindness, cooperation, sharing and compromising. While longing for the safety and love of a close connection, they don't really believe they are loveable and lack the skills of how to obtain and maintain friendships. Lonely children staring into a computer because they lack the social skills and confidence that their peers like them often mean friendlessness. Others are so desperate to feel accepted that they say or do anything to be accepted. Some children may become possessive of their friends and feel jealous and threatened if their friend pays attention to other kids.

Getting Attention

Some children from high conflict divorces want to bring attention to themselves, but like most kids lack the skills and the ability to truly stand up for themselves. Poor grades, using drugs, becoming defiant, withdrawing from the world, acting out in class and stop doing activities that normally bring them pleasure are sometimes ways children draw attention to their sadness. Sometimes, on the other hand, children strive for perfection in an effort to be loved and approved by their parents. These children think if they are perfect, they can somehow be above the fray of the warring adults. They tend to be very hard on themselves and are rarely compassionate towards themselves or others.


Organizing, strategizing and overall planning are good life skills, but in this situation children use them to manipulate adults like chess pieces on a board and use these skills in other inappropriate ways with other adults and peers. The children may seem mature, but in truth they are emotionally and often socially immature and emotionally needy then they appear. They have learned how to please others without really learning how to master fulfilling themselves. This mask leads adults to misread the kid's sense of self worth; thinking they are doing fine when in actuality, they are hurting inside.

Some children align themselves with one parent and this leads to opposition to the other parent. These children get subtle and overt rewards from the ally parent. The parents may encourage an evil perception of the other parent. Their feelings about the former spouse may be experienced by severe body language or facial expressions whenever the other parent's name comes up. These children feel that they must take a stand for the ally parent and lock out the other parent. This occurs because the child is fearful of losing the aligned parent's support if he or she shows any connection with the other parent. It is difficult in these cases to really know how the child actually feels about anything.

Parents who are in litigation cannot effectively co-parent because a complete lack of trust makes successful co-parenting impossible. Not blaming the other parent, not demonizing the other parent but trying to discover what they are doing to contribute to the problem – are all steps in the right direction. Children try to get what they want and if they can manipulate two warring parents, they will do so. This is not a character flaw on their part. This manipulation comes from the absence of communication by the parents.

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