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How does parental conflict during divorce affect kids?

Many divorcing parents share concern about the effects their divorce could have on their children. Some parents are so afraid that their divorce would cause their children harm that they end up staying in an unhappy marriage.

While divorce can harm children initially, most kids recover well in about two years. Additionally, studies have shown that the effect divorce has on a child may at least partially depend on the amount of parental conflict the child witnesses.

What counts as parental conflict?

All parents argue, whether they are married or not, but the occasional argument is generally not the type of conflict that negatively impacts kids. Parental conflict can harm kids when it is frequent, hostile, physically aggressive, seems to threaten the intactness of the family or is about the child. It is also harmful when it involves raised voices, verbal insults, withdrawal from the argument or the silent treatment.

Children who are exposed to this type of conflict may feel afraid, angry, anxious or sad. They are at a higher risk of certain health problems, sleeping problems and academic problems. They may also develop poor interpersonal skills and problem solving abilities.

How does this conflict cause harm?

Parental conflict causes this type of harm for a variety of reasons. Sometimes children who witness parental conflict blame themselves. Sometimes children lack the healthy coping mechanisms to properly deal with their experiences. Other times, the parental conflict has such a significant effect on the parent that it prevents him or her from being the best parent he or she could be, which then inadvertently causes the child to suffer.

Does it matter when the conflict occurs?

Children who are exposed to high levels of parental conflict before their parents’ divorce may fare better after divorce than they might have if their parents had stayed together. In these cases, divorce may offer a way to stop or reduce the amount of conflict between parents, which can feel like a relief to children.

However, divorce can also stir up a variety of emotions between parents. Sometimes, parental conflict increases during and after divorce, even when there wasn’t much conflict during a marriage. Research has shown that high levels of conflict during and after divorce can negatively impact a child’s ability to adjust to divorce.

There are a variety of ways parents can help improve a child’s ability to cope with divorce. However, actions that help minimize conflict between parents can go a long way toward that goal.

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