Family Separation can be one of the most stressful experiences in a person’s life. It is particularly hard on children. Children that experience family separation do adjust over time, however research suggests that they are twice the risk of experiencing emotional and behavioural problems particularly if parents are high conflict. The way parents manage conflict after separation can be a major factor in how the child will respond to the separation and their views on relationships and themselves.
What does parental conflict look like?
It is safe to say that no child is free from seeing their parents argue or have a disagreement from time to time. It is during these times that parents can show their children (even during an argument) how to positively and calmly resolve conflict and that relationships can remain intact. Their subsequent actions will reaffirm to the child that the conflict has been resolved. Children that experience conflict resolution this way generally are unaffected.
Ongoing and high parental conflict harms children. High conflict generally looks hostile, heated, aggressive and the behaviour may escalate to raised voices, verbal and emotional abuse, insults, swearing and/or physical violence. This is very distressing as an adult and even more intense for a child. Equally as distressing is silent treatment by one or both parents and when the argument is centred around the child. Parents do not have to live together for their child to be unscathed. They can also be living apart.
What affects does parental conflict have on a child?
In a family dynamic where there is high conflict, the child may experience anger, fear, anxiety, sadness. They are at a higher risk of experiencing behavioural and social problems such a sleep issues, regression in toilet-training, disturbances at school etc. Externally the child may become more disobedient, aggressive and non-compliant, more likely to associate with antisocial peers and struggle in maintaining close relationships. Teenagers are more likely to use alcohol, cigarettes and drugs as well as commencing sexual activity earlier.
These problems negatively impact the child’s ability later in life to enter healthy romantic and social relationships. Their perception of future family relationships is likely to be viewed in a negative light. The consequences on the child and future generations are great as it increases the risk that the next generation will also exhibit similar dysfunctional behaviours and patterns – letting the cycle continue.
High conflict and parenting
High-conflict parents tend to focus less of their efforts to parenting and more to the conflictual relationship. Their parenting styles tends to be inconsistent and passive rather than attentive and collaborative. One or both parents may also suffer from diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues and likely to have poorer strategies of managing stress and conflict. In situations where you have a parent or both with poor mental health in a high conflict relationship the lower the outcomes will be for the child. In addition, children may also form an insecure attachment to their parent.
The child may start to blame themselves or seek unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage the stress. Their brain development could also be at risk due to experiencing negative reactions related to the stressful environment they live within or exposed to.
What can I do to improve the situation?
At the end of the day, you cannot control the actions of others however you can control your own actions and hope that that will help to improve the situation. Take some time to educate and understand conflict patterns and which one you may find yourself constantly using. Figure out what issues are the most conflictual i.e. care arrangements, decision making etc. Try (if you can) develop agreed ground rules for managing conversations that could result in conflict and see how you go. You may want to engage the help of a trusted friend or family member or professional to assist.
If all fails who can help me?
Quite often by the time a person in a high conflict relationship contacts a service for help the relationship tends to be in crisis. There are professionals experienced and trained in this area that can help such as conflict coaches, counsellors, psychologists and mediators (if you are engaged in mediation) etc. There is also a parenting orders programs that specializes in high conflict between both parents. This program can be court-ordered by a Family Court or you can voluntarily attend.
If you or someone you know needs help to navigate through family mediation or would like more information please contact Latoya Percival or Anna Oxford via our website www.xpmediators.com