Parental Conflict During Massachusetts Divorce Harms Children

| Mar 12, 2021 | Children |

Massachusetts children who see their parents bicker during a separation or divorce are more likely to develop a fear of abandonment, new research warns.

And even if a youngster feels close to one or both parents, that fear can still undermine his or her mental health down the road.

The findings stem from interviews with roughly 560 kids between 9 and 18 years of age. Parents and teachers were also interviewed.

Interviewers first asked kids how frequent and intense the conflict between their parents was. Then they asked how often kids felt like they were caught in the middle — for example, being asked by one parent to carry a message to the other. Finally, researchers wanted to know if their parents said bad things about each other.

Researchers found that exposure to conflict predicted children’s fear that they would be abandoned by one or both parents. In turn, children who reported higher fear of abandonment were more likely to report more mental health problems 11 months later, based on interviews with both the kids and their teachers.

Such problems included bottled-up feelings of distress and/or general feelings of anxiety or fear.

Researchers said this was more than expected given the participants’ mental health when the study began. And having a good relationship with their parent didn’t protect kids from fearing abandonment in the face of high conflict,.

The young participants (average age, 12) had been enrolled in a post-divorce program between 2012 and 2015.

The research team found that the link between parental conflict and fear of abandonment was evident regardless of a child’s age, though it was more prevalent among younger ones.

The assessment lasted for 11 months, so it’s unclear how long psychological ramifications might endure.

But it is already clear that simply being a good parent didn’t appear to protect kids from the impact of exposure to parental conflict.

This was the most surprising finding according to the team. Good parenting is a very strong and powerful protective factor for all children, especially after a separation or divorce. But based on prior research, they  knew that the effect of good parenting is complicated in separated/divorced families.

It’s possible,  that although good parenting is protective, it may not be enough to cancel out the negative effects of conflict.

Still, parents can do something about it: Just don’t argue and fight in front of the kids.

They can think of it as putting up a shield to protect their children from the conflict. One strategy would be to remind themselves — maybe use a sticky note or reminder in the phone — to put up the shield whenever they’re around the other parent and there is a chance for conflict. And they can be extra careful that they don’t say things to make their children feel caught in the middle, like they have to pick sides.

In other words, no badmouthing, and no asking the child to spy or convey messages.

It is also important for parents to make sure that their children know that although they are separated or divorced, they will continue to care for them, to quell any fears of abandonment that the child might have.

The findings come as little surprise to other mental health experts.

The expert noted that almost all the negative impact of divorce can be attributed to ex-spousal conflict.

Experts recommend that parents should know that good parenting after divorce means owning their contributions to conflict, and seeking help if they aren’t able to control and mitigate conflict on their own.

The tried-and-true way of reducing conflict is the practice of non-violent communication.

Should you be in the midst of a divorce or contemplating divorce, contact the Law Offices of Renee Lazar at 978-844-4095 to schedule a FREE one hour no obligation consultation.

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