The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS (Continued)
Characteristics of high conflict divorcing families
A number of clinical and empirical studies have concluded that one of the most toxic factors contributing to the immediate and long-term negative outcomes for children is ongoing conflict between parents before and after divorce. These studies are very clear in their conclusions about the dangers to children of exposure to high conflict between their parents, but they are vague and inconsistent about how to define high conflict. One of the persistent difficulties in these studies is the lack of baseline measures for the level of conflict that one would expect in most divorcing families. Without this baseline, it is impossible to accurately determine the level of conflict that can be defined as
More empirical research is needed to develop an accurate measure of the conflict which can be defined as high conflict. Such research, using large sample groups, should begin by establishing baseline measures for the amount of conflict that normally exists in divorcing families as compared to intact families. Once this baseline is established, a second baseline of conflict levels can be determined for families that exhibit a number of the characteristics mentioned below.
In the absence of any accurate psychometric measures for high conflict families, a number of researchers have identified certain behavioural or emotional characteristics that typify what they refer to as high conflict divorces. The problem with these studies is that they try to identify behavioural or emotional characteristics that contribute to a state of affairs that is not clearly defined at the start. These characteristics are broken down into internal elements and external markers.
The internal elements are those characteristics that come to light as a result of careful investigation by a trained mental health professional. These include feelings, attitudes, belief systems and relationship dynamics, and are often identified during custody/access assessments.
Internal individual elements include:
- a history of mental health difficulties, including depression, anger, withdrawal and uncommunicative behaviour;
- a sense of powerlessness;
- an overwhelming sense of unresolvable loss;
- a history of violent and abusive behaviour;
- a tendency to vilify the other parent;
- a poor sense of personal autonomy beyond the marital relationship;
- an inability to separate the parents’ needs from the child’s needs;
- a high degree of distrust;
- rigid and inflexible thinking about relationships and child development;
- a history of addictions and substance abuse; and
- generalized anger towards life in general and members of the opposite sex.
Internal relationship characteristics include:
- a tendency towards enmeshment rather than autonomy;
- a poor sense of boundaries;
- a high degree of competitiveness in the marriage and in the separation;
- verbal and physical aggression between the parents;
- a tendency to involve the children in the disputes; and
- a pattern of alienating the child from the other parent.
External markers tend to be quantitative in nature and can be noted and tracked by any professional who has regular contact with the family. These include:
- 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 be settled; and
- a large amount of collected affidavit material.
Some attempts have been made by researchers and clinicians to develop "typologies" of high, medium and low levels of conflict as a first step in streaming these families. The most common streaming is towards different types of parenting plans. These distinctions appear to have only limited application in the clinical practices of mental health professionals who conduct custody/access assessments. Most mental health professionals start from the assumption that families who require assessments (often court-ordered) are already in high conflict situations. The assessment process then makes a further distinction between high conflict and low conflict families. Recommendations for parenting plans, including ideas for using community resources to reduce levels of conflict, are then linked to the level of conflict identified in the assessment.
This research study concludes that a high or low conflict typology is more useful to practitioners than models that identify several levels of conflict. This simpler model provides easier links to specific types of parenting plans. Suggested models are shown below.
High Conflict Families, Characteristics and Suggested Parenting Plan
- 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 be settled
- a large amount of collected affidavit material
- a history of access denial
Key Elements of a Parenting Plan
- minimal or no contact between parents
- a great amount of detail with little flexibility left to parents
- regular routines for children
- a primary parent for decision-making
- access may be limited or supervised
- any communication between parents is through use of a "Communication Book"
- use of a neutral place for exchange of children
Individual and Relationship Characteristics
- a history of mental health difficulties, including depression, anger, withdrawal and uncommunicative behaviour
- a history of violent and abusive behaviour
- a tendency to vilify the other parent
- an inability to separate the parents’ needs from the child’s needs
- inflexible thinking about relationships and child development
- a high degree of distrust
- a tendency towards 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 and physical aggression between the parents
- a tendency to involve the children in the disputes
- a pattern of alienating the child from the other parent
Referral to Community Resources
- mandated services to monitor child safety
- counselling and therapy to help with issues of anger and loss
- addictions services
- supervised access and exchange programs
Low Conflict Families, Characteristics and Suggested Parenting Plan
- ongoing disputes of items of daily routine
- use of supportive family and friendship networks to limit conflict
- use of lawyers as a last resort
- few court appearances
- no criminal activity linked to the custody dispute
- no history of violence
Key Elements of a Parenting Plan
- possibility of joint and shared decision-making;
- possibility of equal time with both parents based on the child’s needs
- parenting plans to provide guidelines, but allowing flexibility between parents;
- focus on contentious issues, leaving most for the parents to negotiate.
Individual and Relationship Characteristics
- ability to separate the 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 quickly brought under control
- ability to not say certain things in anger
- pattern of protecting the child 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
Referral to Community Resources
- mediation services
- individual and group support counselling for children and parents
- parent education programs
It may be that, beyond the practical application for developing parenting plans, there is little usefulness in trying to define more accurate criteria for characterizing high conflict divorce situations. Probably the main difficulty with this term is the adjective "high", since it implies there is a clear distinction between various levels of conflict. Making such distinctions among individuals is one thing, but trying to generalize such distinctions and draw universal correlations between combinations of external and internal markers and the children’s emotional response to these markers demands very sophisticated research.
At this time, it is most useful to see divorce conflict as a continuum, an interplay between three sets of factors:
- specific events and behaviours in a family leading up to and following the decision to separate;
- the family and community resources available to help the parents and children adjust to the structural/environmental, emotional and relationship changes; and
- the children’s internal responses to these challenges.
More research, including studies that investigate long-term outcomes, is needed to determine whether the use of criteria to identify high conflict divorce has any practical application for mental health and legal practitioners in terms of developing parenting plans and alternative services for dispute resolution.
Some studies refer to specific types of hostile behaviour between parents in high conflict. These behaviours include parental alienation, use of false allegations, and access and custody denial. Each of these requires more study to accurately define the behaviour as well as gain some understanding about how these particular behaviours affect children.
More research is required concerning certain elements of high conflict divorces, specifically parental alienation, use of false allegations, and access and custody denial, to determine whether legislative initiatives would be a useful response to these situations.
The effects on children of high conflict between parents
When looking at negative outcomes for children, a majority of studies identify high conflict between parents as having the most toxic effect on children. Only a few studies have examined the after-effects on children of high conflict families. These studies conclude that exposure to high conflict between divorcing parents results in children showing:
- high levels of aggressive behaviour;
- anti-social behaviour;
- conduct disorders; and
They further conclude that:
- open hostility for periods longer than one year are likely to cause children problems in the form of uncontrolled behaviour;
- both girls and boys are equally effected by inter-parental hostility, but boys are more likely to show their upset in overt displays of problem behaviour;
- the child’s age does not to seem to be a mitigating factor in reactions to inter-parental hostility (very young children and older adolescents all show upset in these situations); and
- good relationships between one or both parents and the child mitigate but do not eliminate the negative effects of inter-parental hostility.
These studies indicate that children who live in high conflict situations are at an even greater risk of becoming maladjusted than children in lower conflict circumstances of divorce and separation.
As part of a public education program designed to raise awareness about the hazards of divorce for children, attention should focus on the specific hazards caused by high conflict situations.
- Date modified:
The past few decades have witnessed dramatic changes in family life in all industrial countries.1 The increase in the divorce rate in the second half of the 20th century was striking; in fact, the divorce rate more than doubled in most Westernized countries from 1960 to 1980.2 The increase in divorces has been particularly consequential for children, as millions of them have experienced parental divorce. Moreover, recent increases in non-marital births, driven largely by rising rates of childbearing among cohabiting couples, have also resulted in a greater number of children experiencing the separation of their never-married parents.3 Because cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages, many children who are born into these unions also will experience the dissolution of their parents’ union when the cohabiting relationships end.4
Numerous studies have found that parental separation and divorce is associated with a range of negative outcomes for younger children and adolescents across various domains.5-7 Parental separation/divorce is associated with academic difficulties, including lower grades and prematurely dropping out of school, and greater disruptive behaviours (e.g., being oppositional with authority figures, getting into fights, stealing, and using and abusing alcohol and illegal drugs). Children and adolescents who experience the divorce of their parents also have higher rates of depressed mood, lower self-esteem, and emotional distress.
Parental divorce is also associated with negative outcomes and earlier life transitions as offspring enter young adulthood and later life. Children of divorce are more likely to experience poverty, educational failure, early and risky sexual activity, non-marital childbirth, earlier marriage, cohabitation, marital discord and divorce. In fact, emotional problems associated with divorce actually increase during young adulthood.8 Understanding the magnitude of these problems and the causal mechanisms through which divorce influences these behaviours, therefore, has important social consequences.
First, research needs to specifically identify the magnitude of the effects of divorce because so many other risk factors frequently co-occur with parental separation. So, the question is how large are the differences between offspring who do and do not experience parental separation? Second, it is difficult to examine the causal effects of parental separation/divorce on offspring adjustment because researchers cannot use random assignment. As such, researchers must consider and test both causal and non-causal mechanisms that could explain why parental separation/divorce is associated with problems across numerous areas of functioning.
Research on parental separation/divorce is now using more representative samples, utilizing stronger research designs to test competing theories, including measurements of offspring functioning before and after the separation, and better assessing of multiple domains of functioning.5,9 These advances are enabling researchers to answer questions that are important for public policy.10-11
Key Research Questions
Three research questions will be addressed here:
- What is the magnitude of the effects associated with parental separation?
- Are the associations between parental separation/divorce and offspring functioning causally related to the experience of marital transitions or due to factors that both increase marital disruptions and offspring functioning?
- To which extent are the associations causal and what are the specific environmental factors that mediate (or explain) the associations?
Recent Research Results
Parental separation/divorce is associated with approximately a one-and-half to two-fold increase in the risk for impairing outcomes in the offspring, such as dropping out of school or experiencing their own divorce.12 Yet, a majority of offspring who have experienced a parental separation do not experience these serious outcomes. The magnitude of the effects are typically described as small to medium by social science researchers,13 meaning that parental separation is associated with increased risk but parental separation/divorce is not the largest or most important risk factor when considered by itself. It is important to note, however, that many offspring of separated/divorced parents experience many distressing thoughts and emotions, regardless of whether they have diagnosable problems.14 A recent meta-analysis, a study that combines numerous studies on a topic, also has found that the differences between offspring who have and who have not experienced parental divorce have increased since the 1980s.15
There are two main and competing explanations for the increase in problems seen among children of divorce. The first, the causal hypothesis, suggests that divorce itself harms children and causes their subsequent problems. In contrast, the selection hypothesis emphasizes that divorced parents are different from those who do not divorce and that these differences lead both to divorce and to later adjustment problems in the children. Research studies have used numerous designs to test the causal and selection factors. For example, genetically-informed approaches,16-21 studies that help rule out genetic and environmental selection factors, and longitudinal studies with measures of offspring functioning before and after the separation8,22-23 suggest that risk factors specifically associated with parental separation/divorce are responsible for most of the increased risk of psychological, academic and social impairments.5-6
Recent research has focused on identifying the family processes that specifically account for (or mediate) the association between parental divorce and offspring impairment. The research has highlighted the role of ongoing (or perhaps increased) parental conflict after the divorce, poorer parenting before and after the separation, subsequent economic stressors, lack of contact and meaningful parent-child interactions with the nonresidential parent, and increased residential mobility.5-7,24 The research suggests that these family processes account for most of the increased risk associated with parental divorce. There is strong support that targeting these processes will consequently reduce the problems seen in offspring of separated/divorced parents.
Future research needs to examine the causes and consequences of multiple family transitions,9 especially into and out of the ambiguous status of not married but not divorced.5 More research is necessary to understand the diversity in responses (heterogeneity) to parental separation/divorce.5-6 For example, are such transitions worse for families from lower socioeconomic levels, where separations and divorce are more prevalent?25 Also, what risk and protective factors, including child-specific factors, are important? Furthermore, there are enormous gaps in the research on interventions for divorcing/separating couples.26 An important next step for the field is to translate the enormous amount of social science research on the causes and consequence of divorce into empirically supported interventions that reduce the psychological, academic and social impairments associated with parental separation. More rigorous research, especially studies that randomly assign families to different interventions, is absolutely essential.27
Parental separation/divorce is associated with increased risk for numerous psychological, academic and social problems throughout the life-course. Experiencing parental separation is associated with roughly a two-fold increase on average, but an overwhelming majority of children and adolescents do not exhibit impairing problems after parental separations. In other words, recent research highlights an increased risk for negative outcomes but parental divorce separation does not necessarily doom a child to have major, impairing problems. Children and adolescents who experience parental divorce, however, frequently experience great emotional distress during the separation and afterward. Recent research that uses numerous designs to test the underlying causal mechanisms suggests that the increased risk for impairing problems is not due solely to selection factors (risks that increase both parental separation and problems in the offspring). Rather, ongoing conflicts between the co-parents after the separation, problems with poor parenting, financial difficulties resulting from the separation, and loss of contact with the non-residential parent help explain the association between parental divorce and offspring functioning.
Policymakers, scholars and professionals are currently engaged in a debate about the importance of marriage and the consequences of divorce. Many researchers and commentators point to the “small” effects found in studies of divorce and the fact that an overwhelming majority of people from divorced families do not have significant or diagnosable problems. Other professionals have pointed out that small effects, when multiplied by the millions of people who experience parental separation/divorce, constitute a very serious public health problem.
Debates about how to improve the lives of children frequently propose initiatives that focus either on (a) cultural and legal policies to strengthen marriage or (b) programs that focus on economic, social and psychological resources to improve the lives of families. A strict dichotomy, however, fails to recognize that family structure, family processes and contextual factors influence and interact with each other. Families are more likely to flourish in environments where marriage is strong and where families have access to the material, social and psychological resources they need. Thus, public policy reforms should take a comprehensive approach toward reducing the risks in children’s lives, including parental separation/divorce.
- McLanahan S, Donahue E, Haskins R. Marriage and child wellbeing. The Future of Children 2005;15:3-12.
- Kiernan K. European Perspectives on Union Formation. In: Waite LJ, Bachrach H, Christine M, Hindin E, Thompson E, Thornton A, eds. The Ties that Bind: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation. New York: Aldine de Gruyter; 2000:40-58.
- Casper LM, Bianchi SM. Continuity and Change in the American Family. Thousand Oaks, NJ: Sage Publications; 2002.
- Bumpass L, Lu H. Trends in cohabitation and implications for children’s family contexts in the United States. Population Studies. 2000;54:29-41.
- Amato PR. Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of Marriage and Family 2010;72:650-666.
- Lansford JE. Parental divorce and child adjustment. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2009;4:140-152.
- Kelly JB, Emery RE. Children’s adjustment following divorce: Risk and resilience perspectives. Family Relations 2003;52:352-362.
- Cherlin AJ, Chase-Lansdale PL, McRae C. Effects of parental divorce on mental health throughout the life course. American Sociological Review 1998;63:239-249.
- Cherlin AJ. Demographic trends in the United States: A review of research in the 2000s. Journal of Marriage and Family 2010;72:403-419.
- Academy of Medical Sciences Working Group. Identifying the environmental causes of disease: How should we decide what to believe and when to take action? London: Academy of Medical Sciences; 2007.
- British Academy of Science Working Group. Social science and family policy. London: British Academy Policy Center; 2010.
- Hetherington EM, Kelly J. For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: W.W. Norton; 2002.
- Cohen J. Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences. 2nd ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates; 1988.
- Laumann-Billings L, Emery RE. Distress among young adults from divorced families. Journal of Family Psychology 2000;14:671-687.
- Amato PR. Children of divorce in the 1990s: An update of the Amato and Keith (1991) meta-analysis. Journal of Family Psychology 2001;15:355-370.
- D’Onofrio BM, Turkheimer EN, Emery RE, Maes HH, Silberg J, Eaves LJ. A Children of Twins Study of parental divorce and offspring psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 2007;48:667-675.
- D’Onofrio BM, Turkheimer EN, Emery RE, et al. A genetically informed study of marital instability and its association with offspring psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 2005;114:570-586.
- D’Onofrio BM, Turkheimer EN, Emery RE, et al. A genetically informed study of the processes underlying the association between parental marital instability and offspring adjustment. Developmental Psychology 2006;42:486-499.
- D’Onofrio BM, Turkheimer EN, Emery RE, et al. A genetically informed study of the intergenerational transmission of marital instability. Journal of Marriage and Family 2007;69:793-803.
- Amato PR, Cheadle JE. Parental divorce, marital conflict and children’s behavior problems: A comparison of adopted and biological children. Social Forces 2008;86:1139-1161.
- Burt SA, Barnes AR, McGue M, Iacono WG. Parental divorce and adolescent delinquency: Ruling out the impact of common genes. Developmental Psychology 2008;44:1668-1677.
- Malone PS, Lansford JE, Castellino DR, et al. Divorce and child behavior problems: Applying latent change score models to life event data. Structural Equation Modeling 2004;11:401-423.
- Strohschein L. Parental divorce and child mental health trajectories. Journal of Marriage and Family 2005;67:1286-1300.
- Emery RE, Otto RK, O'Donohue WT. A critical assessment of child custody evaluations: Limited science and a flawed system. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2005;6:1-29.
- McLanahan S. Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the second demographic transition. Demography 2004;41:607-627.
- Holtzworth-Munroe A, Applegate AG, D’Onofrio BM. Family dispute resolution: Charting a course for the future. Family Court Review 2009;47:493-505.
- Beck CJA, Holtzworth-Munroe A, D’Onofrio BM, Fee W, Hill F. Collaboration between judges and social science researchers in family law. Family Court Review 2009;47:451-467.