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High-Conflict Divorces: Are You Building a Wall or a Foundation?

When parents separate, the higher the conflict goes, the more children are emotionally affected. Children are forced into having to position themselves in alignment with one or the other parent. The conflict is founded in mistrust, anger, projective blame, deep resentment that is visibly and invisibly displayed to the child.

It must be noted that personality development of the child occurs through others as the self cannot create the self. For this very reason attachment plays such a key role in the personality development of the child. Courts, therapists and extended families all play a role in strengthening the conflict, which directly impacts the child.

How do you know if you are part of a pair of high-conflict parents?

Johnston and Roseby report

"high-conflict parents are identified by multiple, overlapping criteria: high rates of litigation and relitigation, high degrees of anger and mistrust, incidents of verbal abuse, intermittent physical aggression, and ongoing difficulty in communicating about and cooperating over the care of their children at least two to three years following their separation. Probably the most noticeable characteristic of this population of "failed divorces" is that these parents have difficulty focusing on their children's needs as separate from their own and cannot protect their children from their own emotional distress and anger, or from their ongoing disputes with each other.... The most serious threat... is... that these children bear an acutely heightened risk of repeating the cycle of conflicted and abusive relationships as they grow up and try to form families of their own."

Children do reenact and mirror their parents behaviours, emotional states, and thinking patterns of their environment.

Another component is the role of mental health professionals:

There are therapists, who see only one of the parental parties to the divorce conflict, encourage uncompromising stands, reify distorted views of the other parent, write recommendations, and even testify on behalf of their adult client with little or no understanding of the client's needs, the other parent's position, or the couple or family dynamics. Unfortunately, some courts are willing to give credence to this kind of "expert testimony." In some high-profile cases, the parents' mental health therapists dispute among themselves, playing out the parental dispute in a community or court arena.

Mental health professionals, lawyers and judges have the greatest power to influence the conduct of high-conflict custody cases. Therefore, these professionals should bear primary responsibility for preventing or reducing conflict in such cases.

Signs of a High-Conflict Divorce

  • Criminal convictions.

  • Involvement of child welfare agencies in the dispute.

  • Several or frequent changes in lawyers.

  • The number of times a case goes to court.

  • The overall length of time it takes for the case to settle.

  • A large amount of collected affidavit material.

  • History of access denial.

  • Individual and relationship characteristics

  • History of mental health difficulties, including depression, anger, withdrawal and non-communicative behaviour.

  • History of violent and abusive behaviour.

  • A tendency to vilify the other parent.

  • Inability to separate the parent's needs from the child's needs.

  • Rigid and inflexible thinking about relationships and child development.

  • High degree of distrust.

  • A tendency toward enmeshment rather than autonomy.

  • A poor sense of boundaries.

  • A high degree of competitiveness in the marriage and in the separation.

  • The amount of verbal, emotional and physical aggression between the parents.

  • A tendency to involve the children in disputes (both visibly and invisibly through verbal and non-verbal reactions)

  • A pattern of alienating the child from the other parent or any other forms of splitting behaviours.

  • For the low conflict typology, the external markers and relationship characteristics are as follows:

Signs of Effective Parenting after a Separation or Divorce

  • Use of a supportive family and friendship network to limit conflict.

  • Use of lawyers as last resort.

  • Few court appearances.

  • No criminal activity linked to custody dispute.

  • No history of violence.

  • Individual and relationship characteristics

  • Ability to separate a child's needs from parents' needs.

  • Ability to validate the importance of the other parent.

  • Conflict is resolved with only occasional expressions of anger.

  • Negative emotions brought quickly under control.

  • Ability to not say certain things in anger.

  • Pattern of protecting children from angry episodes.

  • Child functioning improves after a period of adjustment.

  • Both parents can tolerate differences.

  • Ability to cooperate on child-related issues.

  • A resolution of personal issues.

  • Supporting childhood attachment with both parents

Children need and require both parents, outside of protection related issues, to naturally thrive. When one or the other parent severs this relationship of the other biological parent, the parent-child attachment is directly and significantly implicated. Sometimes children may insist on having the independence of their perspective heard, even though the 'favoured' parent has influenced them.

Remember, what children want is not necessarily what is best for them.

From a neurobiological perspective, children's brains have not reached maturation and their executive functioning, specifically coordinating information, judgement, planning, weighting alternatives, rationally analyzing, cognitive flexibility, and problem-solving skills have not been fully developed. This is the stage where children's brains are in the formative and growing stage, therefore they are at risk for more impulsive, risk-taking, and poor judgement decisions and behaviours. These behaviours become even more present in adolescence.

Within our legal system, children are not allowed to vote, drink, drive, drop out of school, or even get a tattoo. Parents typically do not let children refuse medical treatment or refuse to go to school. In general, children do not have the same privileges to make adult decisions based on their neurodevelopmental stage. Therefore, it makes sense that should not be allowed to make life altering decisions, such as severing ties with one parent, grandparent and other relatives.

To conclude, I want to share a short story from Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD

Building a Wall

"Suppose when parents separate or divorce, they are given a pile of 1000 little bricks. They can use these bricks to build a wall against the other parent, or they can use these bricks to build a foundation of resilience for their child. When they build a wall, the bricks they use are blaming others, all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviours. When they build a foundation of resilience, the bricks they use become checking oneself, flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviours. There are many people today (family, friends, and professionals) who will help parents build a wall or a foundation. The problem is that we often don't realize whether we're building a wall or a foundation. We have to become informed and self-aware."

Be well


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