Higher conflict reflects more negative effects on the child.
Parent conflict is not uncommon. (Nielsen 2017). Longitudinal research indicates that the effects of divorce on children varies with the level of discord between parents prior to relationship disruption. (Amato 2001]). Higher conflict is reflected in more negative effects on the child.
How couples handle their disagreements provides the model of conflict resolution that their children learn. Mild conflicts that are reasonably resolved, and do not focus on the child, have relatively benign effects on children. (Goeke-Morey et al. 2007). How often the parents fight, how intense/angry/hurtful they are, and how long such conflicts last, are all factors in the child’s adjustment.
The amount of conflict is a factor in your child’s adjustment.
Arguing in front of a child or badmouthing the other parent is hurtful. Children should not be made to take sides in a parental dispute. (Krishnakumur and Buehler 2000). Parental conflict often begins about two years before the separation. If conflict is present then and continues through the divorce, the harm to the child magnifies.
High levels of parental conflict and poor parenting often appear at the same time. Each factor influences the other. This is true with married couples and separated/divorced couples. Krishnakumar and Buehler (2000) reported that the relationship between parental conflict and poor parenting was stronger among married couples. In either case, the harm to the child resulted from an increase in harsh discipline and a decrease in parental acceptance of the child.
Parental divorce is not the end of harm
As children of divorce grow to be teens and adults of divorce. Laumann-Billings (2000) noted that parental conflict was the best predictor of distress for young adults from divorced families. A more recent study with college students whose parents divorced when they were younger yielded similar findings. The more parent conflict children experienced, the more distress they felt, as young adults, about their parents’ divorce. (Fabricius and Luecken, 2007).
FACT: The most recent diagnostic manual, DSM-5 has a new condition listed – CAPRD – Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress.
“This category should be used when the focus of clinical attention is the negative effects of parental relationship discord (e.g., high levels of conflict, distress or disparagement) on a child in the family, including effects on the child’s mental or other medical disorders.” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, Fifth Edition, 2013, pg. 716).
Bernet (2016) proposed an expanded definition for CAPRD. He states that “parental relationship distress” refers to the disparagement of one parent by the other parent, high levels of parental conflict, difficulty resolving conflicts and lack of positive exchanges, among other things. He adds that harm to the child might be observed through behavioral problems such as oppositionality, anger, emotional symptoms such as depressed mood and/or anxiety. Physical symptoms in the affected child may include headaches, stomachaches, or aggravation of any medical conditions.
As we noted in BOI Belief #1, Quality Parenting has long been known to facilitate the child’s adjustment following divorce. Negative effects of parental divorce were clearly noted but ameliorated for children who had a secure relationship with at least one parent or caregiver. (Pedro-Carroll 2010).
Finally, parental conflict is a complex topic, whether it is the cause of harm to children, or linked to the harm or a symptom of other factors. Research has shown that some characteristics of the child or their behavior can lead to parents disagreeing and arguing. This is an exploratory series of factors designed to inform parents, mental health workers, and attorneys so we can all focus on protecting the children.
Amato, P. (2001) Children of Divorce in the 1990’s: An Update of the Amato and Keith (1991) Meta-Analysis. Journal of Family Psychology 15, 355-370.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. Washington, DC. American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
Fabricius, W. and Lueken, L. (2007) Postdivorce Living Arrangements, Parent Conflict, and Long-Term Physical Health Correlates for Children of Divorce. Journal of Family Psychology 21 (2), 195-205.
Goeke-Morey, M.C. et al. (2007) Children and Marital Conflict Resolution: Implications for Emotional Security and Adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology 21 (4), 744-753.
Krishnakumar, A. and Buehler, C. (2000) Interparental Conflict and Parenting Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review. Family Relations 49, 25-44.
Laumann-Billings L. and Emery R. (2000) Distress Among Young Adults from Divorced Families. Journal of Family Psychology 14 (4), 671-687.
Maccoby, E. and Mnookin, R. (1992) Dividing the Child: Social and Legal Dilemmas of Custody. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Nielsen, Linda (2017) Re-examining the Research on Parental Conflict, Co-parenting and Custody Arrangements. Psychology, Public Policy and Law 23 (2), 211-231.
Pedro-Carroll, J. (2010) Putting the Child First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce. New York, NY Penguin Group
Sander, I. et al. (2008) Effects of father and mother parenting on children’s mental health in High-and-Low-Conflict Divorces. Family Court Review, 46 (2), 282-296.
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To eliminate harm to Acadiana's children due to parental conflict.