When people are considering divorce, one of the main things they tend to think about is what effect it would have on their children. A new study indicates that conflict between parents, especially when kids are put in the middle, can bring about fears of abandonment. This was true even when the children’s parenting was otherwise positive.
The study, which was recently published in the journal Child Development, involved interviews with about 560 children aged 9 to 18, along with their parents and teachers.
The interviews revealed how frequent and intense the conflict was between the kids’ parents. The researchers also examined how often the kids were caught in the middle of the conflict and whether the parents said bad things about each other.
When children were exposed directly to marital conflict, the children were likely to fear that one or both parents would abandon them. This effect was more intense among those who reported being caught in the middle or negative comments by one parent about the other.
Those kids who reported fear of abandonment were also more likely to report mental health issues 11 months later.
Good parenting itself was not enough
Interestingly, the study also found that good parenting was not enough to overcome the harm of being exposed to conflict.
“Good parenting is a very strong and powerful protective factor for all children, especially after a separation or divorce,” said the study’s lead author. However, the effects of good parenting are complicated in separated and divorced families.
A professor of child and adolescent psychiatry education and training at Washington University School of Medicine said the study’s findings were solid. She noted that “almost all the negative impact of divorce can be attributed to ex-spousal conflict.”
What can you do to lessen the chance of harm?
The study’s authors say that parents can take immediate steps to reduce the potential harm, although the steps may not be easy:
Don’t fight in front of the kids. They suggested a strategy of imagining putting up a shield around the children to protect them from parental conflict. Put a note on the phone and remind yourself to avoid conflict where the kids can observe.
Be extra careful to avoid putting your kids in the middle. This can make children feel as if they have to pick sides, and that can be damaging. Don’t ask your children to spy on the other parent or even to convey messages.
Never badmouth the other parent. This may be the hardest step because it’s so tempting to get your point of view across to the children. Your kids will remember who tried to shield them from conflict and who tried to draw them in.