Roughly 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and one-quarter of American children live with only one parent. Separation and divorce can be hard on children, but tension and fighting among divorced parents can be more damaging than the divorce itself, according to a new study from Arizona State University. Parental conflict fuels a fear of abandonment in children, which increases their risk of mental health problems.
In the study, fear of abandonment was not short-lived. Three months after exposure to parental conflict, children still expressed concern about being abandoned, and this predicted mental health problems 10 months later.
What does conflict between divorced or separated parents look like? It often includes:
- Fighting or using the silent treatment in front of the children
- Speaking poorly of the other parent
- Telling children the other parent doesn’t love them
- Asking children to carry messages
- Questioning children about the other parent’s activities
- Putting children in the middle of fights
- Physical, emotional, or verbal aggression
Children respond to conflict between divorced parents in different ways depending on their situation and their innate ability to cope. Some children remain neutral and maintain stable relationships with both parents. Those with a resilient nature may struggle for a time and then adjust to their new family dynamics. Others suffer longer term mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Risk Factors for Mental Health Disorders
Experiencing continual parental conflict is a significant risk factor for later mental health issues. Other contributing factors may include:
- Lacking support from parents and other key figures, such as extended family
- Experiencing financial instability as a result of the separation or divorce (e.g., needing to downsize or move to a more affordable neighborhood)
- Being forced to relocate with a change in schools and friends
- Having parents who remarry and have additional children or introduce stepchildren, or remarry and divorce again, causing multiple upheavals in their family dynamics
Sometimes divorce is the best option. After all, living in a home with heavy arguing or hostility between married parents can lead to mental health problems in children as well. What you do after separation or divorce helps determine how your children adjust.
How to Manage Conflict as a Divorced Parent
Here are a few strategies that can help:
Choose Your Words Carefully
Monitor how you communicate with your children about your co-parent. Avoid putting them in the middle of a fight, asking them to choose sides, or criticizing the other parent in front of them.
Get Help for Yourself
A marriage and family therapist can provide a variety of helpful services, including mediation and parental coordination to help parents reach an agreement on key issues. Mental health professionals can also provide ongoing counseling to build effective communication and parenting skills, address unresolved anger, and reduce parental conflict.
Separation and divorce are stressful for parents. You’re adjusting to a new way of life as well. Talk through frustrations with someone you trust and make time to care for yourself so you can be the most effective parent possible.
Put Your Child’s Needs First
You want the best for your child, but conflict with a co-parent can pull your time and attention away. In every conversation with your co-parent, set aside resentments and frustrations so you can make decisions that put your child’s needs first.
Show Unconditional Love and Support
During and after divorce, children need to know that they are safe and you will not stop loving them. A warm parenting approach with open communication and consistent discipline is most likely to reduce your child’s fear of abandonment and help them adjust. Ask family members, friends, and members of the community to support your family during this time, so your child knows they are loved by others as well.
Break From Heated Discussions
If you can tell a conversation with your co-parent is turning unproductive, stay calm and recommend talking at a different time, particularly if your child is present. This buys you time to think about how you want to respond, plan for your child to be elsewhere, and collect yourself before the follow-up conversation.
Get Help for Your Child
Talk with a counselor or teen mental health treatment program if your child is struggling. Here are a few signs that high-conflict co-parenting is impacting your child:
- Excessive sadness or anger
- Excessive worrying (e.g., that parents may stop loving them since they stopped loving each other or that the divorce or separation is their fault)
- Symptoms of chronic stress such as tension, difficulty sleeping, or physical complaints like headaches or stomachaches
- Oppositional or impulsive behavior
- Grief over the loss of their previous family life or the loss of time with a parent
- Conflict with peers
- Poor school performance
- Rejecting one parent and aligning with the other (in the absence of a clear justification, such as abuse)
- Risky behavior such as substance abuse or early sexual activity
Counselors can help children develop coping skills so they can manage their feelings in healthy ways. Some communities offer support groups for children of divorce, which can help them feel less alone.
Parents Set the Tone
Divorce is painful for the whole family, but it is possible to minimize conflict and parent effectively. The first year or two is typically the hardest. You can help them adapt by showing how much you love them and moving past anger and resentment to minimize conflict with your co-parent.