Kim Oppenheimer, Ph.D.
Atlanta Psych Consultants, LLC
Child Custody Solutions, LLC
Divorce is a process, not an event. The phases of divorce involve emotional separation, which is always the first stage, followed by physical separation, the legal process, and perhaps another relationship. These last three are not necessarily in that order. The legal process may begin before physical separation, and a new relationship may start at any time. The individual who communicates his or her decision to divorce is way ahead of the spouse who receives the bomb shell, even if all the signs were there that they were co-existing in an unhappy marriage. Divorce creates multiple adjustment issues for parents and children.
Heightened anger and conflict, feelings of abandonment, betrayal, anxiety, diminished communication, and sadness for one or both spouses are common. Grieving the loss of the marriage and the hope for a lifetime together is normal. Emotions are often intensified by the separation and adversarial nature of the divorce process. When people are required to file affidavits and other documents in support of their positions, this process can exacerbate and perpetuate conflict as a result of each party describing their perspective of the relationship, and the causes and consequences of its breakdown. This may create enemies out of spouses who were otherwise getting along quite well. Thus, for some couples, conflict begins after the Separation.
High conflict between parents, irrespective of marital status, has a negative effect on children. A large body of research indicates that children have more psychological problems when their parents have conflict either during marriage or following divorce. Most psychologists agree that children function best in a happy, stable, 2 parent home, but children are better off living in a happy divorced family than a conflict-ridden married family. In fact, interparental conflict is the most predictive risk factor for psychological problems in children (Emery, 1999). High conflict couples are those who continue to engage in negative ways with their exspouse long after the divorce. They argue over financial issues, custody and access to the children, and child-rearing practices. Their tactics vary from avoidance to aggression. As opposed to those who have good co-parenting relationships or even those who reach détente, high conflict couples have high rates of litigation and re-litigation, have high degrees of anger and distrust, can’t communicate about the children, are emotionally abusive, may be physically abusive, and may try to alienate the kids from the other parent.
Conflict, however, is dimensional. It ranges from minimal (i.e., disagreements that are resolved) to severe (endangerment of a parent or child by physical or sexual abuse, drug or alcohol abuse to the point of impairment, or psychopathology). Moderately severe conflict is characterized as a situation in which the child is not endangered physically but is experiencing emotional trauma because the parents continue to provoke each other; they call each other names, make disparaging remarks about the other parent to the child or to others that the child can overhear, “wish” that something would happen to the other parent (i.e., I wish he’d drop dead or I wish she’d just go away), or attempt to alienate a child from the other parent. Basically, the child is the middle of the conflict and feels torn between both parents.
Most parents resolve their anger, conflict, and sadness two to three years following divorce. One reason for this is that divorce is a transition, a process, not an event. Everyone in the family has to adapt to multiple changes. For example, following divorce, one parent generally leaves the family home. In many cases, but not always, this is the father. The parent who stays in the residential home may be challenged by having to take over all the tasks of running the household, when they may have been shared. Or, having to manage a household while working. Or, having to find a job. All, while dealing with the myriad of emotions that come with ending a marriage. The spouse who leaves the marital home deals with establishing a new household routine, and even though he or she may have wanted the divorce, often deals with the loneliness and isolation of not having family around. For the children, when one parent leaves home, the child becomes part of two households instead of one. So, divorce divides the former family system and creates family subsystems. Oftentimes, the child is the only common link between them. This places an unfair burden on children. They should never be mediators. Given two homes, children post-separation have to deal with a divided world (Finley & Schwartz, 2010). However, not all divorces are equal in the extent they create a divided world. Some parents remain cordial, which is the best scenario, whereas others are indifferent or hostile to one another.
In addition to conflict, the other predictor of a child’s adjustment to divorce is contactwith the non-residential parent. Contact with the non-residential parent can be thought about in terms of the total amount of involvement the child has with his or her parent, this includes not only time but also nurturance. Especially for boys, a relationship with Dad is crucial to longterm adjustment. For boys and girls, the total amount of nurturance and involvement from both parents is correlated with well-being. If there is too little from either parent, there may be future problems in personal adjustment and interpersonal relationships.
I am often asked is there a better time to get divorced in terms of the effects of divorce on children. The answer is no. Many parents think they’ll just hang on until the kids go to college. The distress this creates for a young adult in many ways may be worse: When kids go off to college, they need a home base to return to. This allows them the security to be more independent. If they are worried about what is happening at home, it interferes with their ability to focus on schoolwork, make friends, and make good choices around personal safety. Also, if parents’ divorce right after they leave home, most kids I’ve talked to when this has happened, feel ripped off. They think their entire childhood has been a lie. They also feel in some way they failed because they were obviously the glue holding the family together. The child’s developmental stage affects how the child interprets, processes, and adapts to change in the family structure.
Happy parents make happy kids. If you are resilient and cope well with the changes,your kids will too.
There are roughly six developmental stages: Infancy, toddlerhood, pre-school, early childhood, pre-teen, and adolescence.
During infancy, the primary task is to develop trust. A parent who responds to the infant with food, cuddling, and soothing vocalizations teaches the baby that his or her needs will be met. In turn, the baby learns to trust this. As Mom or Dad effectively responds to an infant’s crying, the baby also learns to self-soothe. As parents respond to crying and happy cooing, trust and closeness develop between infant and each parent.
This process is called attachment. Attachment refers to the type of relationship that develops between parent and child. It is not linked to any specific parenting practice or style, but it is linked to a parent being responsive, even anticipating, the needs of the infant and providing them. Attachment forms the basis for trust, a sense of security, and healthy interpersonal relationships in the future. Recent research in the area of interpersonal neurobiology (Schore, Siegel) suggests that attachment is also instrumental in brain development. Specifically, attachment is essential in strengthening circuits in the right brain that control the ability to recognize, express, and self-regulate emotion. Historically, the focus has been on the mother-child bond. Mostly, this was a matter of convenience because in the 1950s and 1960s the typical American family was a stay at home Mom and a Dad who worked outside the home. This traditional family structure had a profound influence on our notions of child development and attachment formation. Studies examined the relationship between mother and child because mothers and their young children were available to come to the psychology lab. Hence, the results that were generated from these studies perpetuated the notion that children were best served by maternal caretaking. This is the “tender years doctrine;” that, children need their mothers more than they need their father from birth to about age 7. Fathers were secondary, at best, if not all together irrelevant. However, current neurobiological research suggests that it is not just cultural attitudes that shape notions of maternal-child attachment. The female brain is hard-wired for the primarily nonverbal, affiliative, and nurturing aspects of attachment formation between mother and child. The basis of maternal behavior is a function of both a mother’s own attachment experiences and hormones that occur during pregnancy and continue post-partum through breastfeeding. Breastfeeding plays a role in attachment formation for both mother and child, as breastfeeding stimulates the hormones associated with maternal nurturing behavior, and through nourishment and nurturance, the neural connections for attachment become hard wired. However, the mother’s history of her own secure or insecure emotional experiences, including when she was an infant with her own mother, are stored in her right brain. This creates a circular pattern of attachment across generations. Thus, a mother who had a secure attachment to her own mother will more likely be able to provide responsive, consistent, and predictable nurturing to her own infant. Likewise, an insecure mother is more likely to provide inconsistent responsiveness to her baby. This does not mean, however, that fathers cannot be primary attachment figures. Infants need responsive, attuned, predictable, and warm care within a consistent relationship (Emery & Shepard, 2011).
Since the early 70s, more attention has focused on the father-child bond. We still know less about paternal attachment than we do about maternal attachment. But, fathers seem to promote their children’s security in different ways than mothers do. For example, a father’s sensitivity or responsiveness to his infant’s crying or cooing is not related to father-child attachment, but how fathers play and problem-solve with their children is related to secure father-child bonds. We know fathers are more energetic with their babies and mothers are more calming. How many times have you heard mothers complain that Dad gets the kids all revved up and she has to calm them down. We also know that contact with father is crucial during the 2nd year of life when the left brain is developing. Left brain development is associated with language development, cognition, and regulation of aggression. During infancy, babies will become distressed when separated from their mothers. During their 2nd year of life, babies respond similarly when separated from their fathers.
As our knowledge of parent-child attachments increases, we know that mother-child and father-child attachments are independent. That is, an infant is capable of forming multiple attachments to multiple caretakers without any risk to their ability to trust and feel secure. However, recent research suggests that an infant forms a hierarchy of attachments, with the parent in the primary parenting role being the strongest. There is also a gender difference, with girls being more adaptable than boys in forming multiple attachments.
The overall consensus among child development researchers at this time is that children are best served when they develop strong and secure attachments to both parents. Practically speaking, there may be another reason to actively involve fathers in caretaking their children. When children do not live with their fathers, contact with them declines over time. Roughly 43% of fathers separated two years or less saw their kids once a week or more. That means that 57% saw their kids less than once a week. Among fathers separated for 11 years or more, only 12% saw their children once a week or more. In fact, nearly one-third of divorced fathers see their children only once a year or not at all (Emery, 1999). Research indicates that these fathers do not make up for the lack of face-to-face time with their children by phone, e-mail, or other means. They are simply absent. So it may be important for Dad to have frequent contact with his child so he forms an attachment, not so that the infant bonds with him.
For infants, out of sight is out of mind. So, according to some researchers, with a very young infant, the sooner the baby learns to spend the night with each parent, the more likely the child is to form secure attachments to each parent. According to this line of thinking, infants who are well adjusted and who have healthy, competent parents have few problems spending the night with either parent. This suggests that infants should have more transitions to the other parent, not fewer. Other researchers, however, contend that babies under anywhere from 8 –24 months cannot tolerate overnights, and that there needs to be 1 home base with the other parent coming over to spend time with the baby. According to this view, separation from the primary caretaker is stressful for the infant. Unlike intact families in which mothers and fathers together interact with their baby, especially in high conflict families, interaction with father means the absence of mother. This is stressful for the infant, and in times of stress, babies turn to their primary caregivers, not the secondary one. Overnights for young children are probably the most controversial area in the child custody literature. There are very few studies on custody arrangements and very young children, and so much depends on the family system. Most difficulties in young children’s adjustment to overnights with the non-custodial parent arise when the primary caretaker is anxious about the arrangement. With high conflict parents, this will be a given. Also, the more frequent the transitions, as in every other night, the greater the likelihood of intensifying the conflict. The biological mother’s emotional state influences the infant’s developing brain. This is true from the last trimester of pregnancy until sometime in the 2nd year of life. The mother is the regulator of stress until the baby’s right brain becomes sufficiently developed so that the infant can regulate his or her own emotions or selfsoothe. Infants who are having problems with attachment, tend to appear withdrawn, do not smile, do not follow others with their eyes, have no interest in interactive games or toys, and do not cry when left alone. They may ignore or actively resist the attachment figure. Upon reunion with the attachment figure, they are not soothed. The good news is that most disrupted attachments can return to normal. Children need to spend time with each parent to develop the view that each parent’s home is safe. Children need to engage in a variety of activities with each parent. Research suggests that the primary custodial parent should be the one who has functioned in the role of primary caretaker. The other parent, however, should visit 2 – 3 times per week. Since infants’ memories are limited, frequent visits allow the infant to internalize the non-custodial parent. This is especially true if the separation occurs before the infant is 8 months. Between 2 and 7 months, the process of attachment begins. The baby will actively seek contact with and closeness with preferred caregivers. At about 8 months of age, infants develop stranger anxiety. That is, they have a fear reaction if they are with someone who is unfamiliar to them. Babies know who they want to be with and can discriminate between those they trust to meet their needs, and those with whom they are developing attachment (Deutsch, 2010). For this reason, between 7 to 12 months is a difficult time to re-introduce a parent after an absence. Given the inconsistency in the recommendations for infants spending the night away from the primary caretaker, be cautious. However, if the degree of conflict between the parents is fairly low, mother is relatively non-anxious, the infant is female with an easy temperament, and the father was involved prior to the separation, these factors predict better adjustment to overnight stays. On the other hand, infants are very sensitive to conflict, especially during transitions, which affects their ability to be soothed and comforted. Therefore, in high conflict situations, avoid overnight visits.
Between the ages of 18 and 36 months, babies become increasingly independent. They rapidly become more mobile and develop language skills. Their cognitive system is maturing. Children between 18 and 36 months are beginning to understand the concept of time. They can anticipate absence and reunion, they can communicate what they feel, and they can be verbally reassured. They ask for what they want and learn to self-soothe, usually with a favorite toy, blanket, or pacifier. They can better differentiate themselves from others and can remember the other parent when out of sight. At this age, most children are constantly exploring their environment but need a safe base to return to. You’ll see young children at this age run away from their parent and then look back to make sure Mom or Dad is still there. If they can’t see their parent, they’ll get upset. Some children, however, have increased fears of separation. They may have nightmares and may become clingy. Conflict between the parents, even exposure to tension between them, can exacerbate these fears.
Children at this age need consistent and predictable routines with firm limits and boundaries. Their increasing independence tests parental limits. “No” is their favorite word. They have temper tantrums when frustrated. Children at this age are very concrete. So, when they say “Mommy is mean,” it probably indicates that the toddler didn’t get what he or she wants. In high conflict families, the other parent is likely to exploit “Mommy is mean” because it provides an opportunity to negatively re-engage with the other parent.
For optimal development, parents should be able to communicate about their children and have similar routines between households. If this is the case, toddlers can be away from either parent for 2 to 3 days at a time. In high conflict families, of course, this situation does not exist. As a result, toddlers may be very fearful of separation and resistant to going with the other parent. They may also get homesick if away from their primary parent. These are normal developmental responses to the conflict and not indicative of poor parenting on the part of the non-residential parent or alienation on the part of the residential parent. However, it is not uncommon for high conflict parents to claim that their child is fearful of the other parent as a way of controlling the time-sharing arrangement (Boyan & Termini, 2005). As with infants, a toddler senses a parent’s anxiety and reacts to it. Older siblings can buffer a toddler’s response to separation from the primary caregiver because they serve as security figures. If there are no older siblings, and high conflict, be cautious with respect to how long a toddler is away from his or her primary attachment figure. Whereas children in this age group can tolerate longer separations from their primary attachment figure, their cognitive and emotional abilities are still forming. Children in this age group vary greatly with respect to their acquisition of expressive and receptive language. Development of these skills can be disrupted by exposure to interpersonal stress, specifically, frequent or intense interparental conflict. As with infants, assessing the interaction between characteristics of the child and the environment is extremely important in determining readiness for the type and frequency of contact with the nonresidential parent. Children ages 3 – 5, preschoolers, are able to internalize routines. For example, they know what happens when they get ready for bed, such as bath, snack, and stories. Their social skills expand, as they learn to interact with other children and adults. They have more sense of control and look for opportunities to demonstrate this control. The concept for children at this age is “mine.” They feel they are the center of the universe and they are very sensitive to conflict. Thus, they may blame themselves for any fighting that occurs between the parents. So, it is really important for parents not to fight in front of the kids. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 also tend to say what they think their parent wants to hear or repeat what they think their parent wants them to say
Night-time fears are also common at this age. They may think monsters are in the closet or under the bed, and fear that something bad is going to happen to Mommy or Daddy. These fears are often used by high conflict families that the other home or parent is unsafe, which of course fuels the conflict. Pre-schoolers may have difficulties with transitions between homes, but usually calm down and settle into the routine at the other household. In general, kids this age can tolerate increasingly longer absences on a regular basis for up to 3 days. When kids have problems transitioning from one parent to the other, if they have a favorite stuffed animal or toy, it helps ease their fears.
Children who are having problems tend to withdraw from others or act aggressively with other children or animals. They may also fail to be soothed by comforting words or affection. Children ages 6 to 9 are beginning to expand their experiences outside the family. They are developing more significant relationships with having developed better social skills. They understand differences in parenting styles and blocks of time away from a parent are easier for them to manage. They have a concept of time, and can understand another point of view. Vulnerable children, such as those who did not form secure attachments to both parents and those who witnessed high conflict, may continue to have problems with separation. The child may feel loyalty conflicts, that is, may feel torn between parents. As an aside, in a study I conducted on the family dynamics of anxiety disorders in adults, I found that the number 1 predictor of clinical levels of anxiety was loyalty conflicts. In children, these loyalty conflicts could manifest in the child feeling a need to side with one parent over the other. So the child could be overly pleasing toward one parent or rejecting of the other parent. Children this age are susceptible to alienating behaviors of parents. If you suspect this is happening, the kids need to be protected from the ongoing conflict between parents. Transitions should occur at a neutral site, such as school, and time with each parent should be on the same days each week. When away, children should contact the other parent in private and children should not carry messages back and forth between parents.
Similarly to younger children, kids ages 6 to 9 will demonstrate either internalizing behaviors such as withdrawal, anxiety or depression, or externalizing behaviors such as aggressiveness in response to parental conflict.
Pre-teens, ages 10 – 12, continue to expand their social networks and activities away from their parents. They continue to be most influenced by their parents, but are beginning to incorporate the behavior and attitudes of their friends into theirs. They still are pretty rule-bound. It is common for kids this age to see things in absolutes: good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. But, they are beginning to understand moral dilemmas and the complexities of issues. They are developing the ability to plan, anticipate consequences, and they want more control over decisions that affect them.
When there is high conflict between parents, pre-teens are particularly vulnerable to alienating behaviors of parents because of their tendency to see the world as black or white. They may form an alliance with one parent over the other. They may be caught in the middle of the conflict and act as a spy in that they feed information to one parent to serve Mom or Dad’s agenda. Frequently, you’ll hear these children echo the negative sentiments of the parent they’re aligned with. The child may also feel abandoned by the parents because they are so focused on fighting with each other rather than on meeting the child’s needs. As a result, they may seek attention in negative ways, such as conduct problems at school, fighting with friends, or poor school performance.
In adolescence, ages 13 – 18, it’s all about freedom and friends. Teen-agers are focused on becoming independent and to have an identity separate from his or her parents. Anyone who has teen-agers knows that this is a time of tension and conflict between children and parents, as the teen-ager constantly pushes parental limits and authority. In a lot of ways, teen-agers are like toddlers in that they want to run away from you but want to know that you are there when they want you. If parents are overly focused on themselves or absorbed in conflict with the other parent, teen-agers often slip through the cracks. Parents don’t keep track of their teen-agers’ friends, activities, whereabouts—greatly increasing the likelihood that they will get into trouble. Parents of adolescents need to be clear about whose supervision and authority the teen is under at all times. This isn’t easy, especially when parents can’t agree on limits and consequences. Teens can further escalate the conflict between parents by playing one off the others. For vulnerable teens, difficult peer relationships, poor interpersonal skills, depression, and self-harm behaviors, such as cutting or suicidal gestures may result.
So, what do we know about interparental conflict and its effects on children? Without a doubt, at all developmental levels, high levels of conflict have a negative, and often, persistent effect on children. The outcome is determined by family systems variables. That is, the individual characteristics of the parents and how these variables interact with the child’s individual characteristics, determine how the child reacts to the conflict. Current research does not support any particular parenting plan, but it is essential for children’s psychological adjustment that the circumstances of each family’s dynamics are taken into account in crafting an arrangement that is in the child’s best interest as opposed to the parents’ convenience. So, any arrangement that helps minimize the conflict between parents maximizes the potential for children’s well-being.