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The Impact of High Conflict Divorce on Children's Emotional Development And How To Cope

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November 21, 2013
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Elizabeth Muller

The Impact of High Conflict Divorce on Children’s Emotional Development

50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce. As clinicians, we are directly on the front lines of the divorce process in our work with couples, individuals, families, and with the children that experience their parent’s divorce. For the purpose of this article, the impact of high conflict divorce on the child’s emotional development is the primary focus.

Conflicting Messages and Emotional Demands of Parents

In Johnson & Campbell’s Impasses of Divorce (1988) they assert, “ Divorce is a process and not an event” Therefore, the clinician (and the child’s parents) must be present and willing to meet the needs of children’s ongoing emotional and physical experience of their parents separation, divorce, and changing family dynamics.

This process can at times last for years in families where the child is often torn between the conflicting messages and emotional demands of their parents. This conflict is best described as ‘tribal warfare’ and has devastating consequences on the child’s sense of self, development of healthy relationships, and lifelong struggles with intimacy and self worth.

The Inability to Co-Parent

Central to the healthy processing of a child’s experience of their parents’ divorce are the physical, emotional, and intrapsychic interactions for the child, and the ways in which the child experiences their parents’ ability and demonstration of negotiating conflict.' As Dr. Abigail Judge (2013) states “ It’s not divorce that hurts children, but the inability of the child’s parents to co-parent the child that significantly impairs the child’s ability to feel safe in the world and within relationships.”

Parents Preoccupied With Their Own Pain

Understandably, divorce is  an all-consuming emotional, physical, and financial process for adults. The strain and emotional turbulence of divorce makes it challenging for parents to remain focused on their child’s needs. Oftentimes, these challenges to care for their child’s emotional needs are present prior to the divorce process in the initial phases of the dissolution of the marriage while still living together.

Lost In the Turmoil

In cases where a child’s parents are preoccupied with their own pain and experiences of loss, or engaged in high conflict and ongoing animosity with their former spouse, children become lost in the turmoil of their parents’ battle. As a result, children become parentified and take on the role of defender and/or caregiver, while tending to the emotional needs of their parents; instead of relying on their parents for emotional and physical stability.

Styles of Co-Parenting

Therefore, parents and clinicians must be attuned to the immediate needs of children who experience their parents' divorce. As Judge (2013) explains, it is not divorce itself that causes emotional strain and possible trauma for the child, but the parent’s inability/ resistance to work together in co-parenting that greatly causes psychological consequences for the child. There are three styles of co-parenting: Cooperative Parenting, Parallel Parenting, and Conflicted Parenting. Cooperative parenting is most beneficial for children but only 25-30% of divorcing parents are able to achieve.

What Is Cooperative Parenting?

In Cooperative parenting, there is ongoing communication and planning between both parents. The child rarely experiences direct exposure to their parents discord and fighting. In Parallel Parenting or “good enough parenting” both parents agree not to fight in front of the child, but there is little communication or collaboration between them.

Conflictual Parenting

In Conflicting Parenting (the most damaging for children), parents have poor communication, often fight in front of the child, and are  described as expressing a need for control and dependency.

Conflict is unavoidable, but the ways in which parents express conflict and resolution of it that directly affects children. In conflictual parenting, parents often use the child to express their anger and their needs. They also use the child to convey and deliver messages between the parents which generates the tearing of the child’s intrapsychic experience and secure attachment development.

Specific Behaviors That Negatively Impact Children's Psychology and How To Heal

Some specific behaviors of parents that negatively impact children’s psychological development are: having the child deliver hostile messages between the parents, parents' intrusive questioning of the child, parents' need and demand for secrets and secrecy, and insisting that the child hide or deny feelings of love and need of either parent.

In high conflict divorces, it is imperative that both parents receive support from individual therapists to help them process their own anxiety and depression regarding their divorce, so that both parents are available to focus on their child’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

Offering Children a Safe Haven

Therefore, in helping parents and clinicians to assist children in processing their parents’ divorce, it is essential to offer children a safe haven in therapy. There are many therapeutic approaches that help decrease anxiety and depression among children experiencing their parents’ divorce. In my practice when working with children, I often use play therapy, art therapy, and drama therapy to explore the child’s inner emotional landscape, including the fears and confusion that many children face when in the middle of their parents’ divorce.

Through this exploration, I work closely with parents to educate them on the impact of marital conflict on their child’s emotional development, and to assist the parents in successfully working through the many parenting challenges of divorce.


Johnson, J. & Campbell, L. (1988). Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and

Resolution of Family Conflict. New York: Simon & Schuster.

“When the Court and Clinical Practice Collide: Working With High Conflict and Divorcing Families”. Appell, J. & Judge, A. November 8, 2013, Regis College.

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