We recently posted an article on our social media about Parental Alienation and its harmful effect on children. But recent child development research shows that even experiencing lower levels of parental conflict can lead to mental health problems for children who are caught in the middle.
The findings of a new Arizona State University research study, titled “Longitudinal Effects of Post-Divorce Interparental Conflict on Children’s Mental Health Problems Through Fear of Abandonment” were published just last week in the Child Development journal. The study, as the title suggests, focused on the lasting effects that post-divorce parental conflicts have on their children’s mental health.
From 2012 to 2015, the researchers surveyed families participating in the ASU New Beginnings Program, asking 559 children (aged 9-18) about their exposure to conflict. The questions included topics like whether after their parents’ divorce their parents fought in front of them, spoke poorly about one another, asked them to carry messages to one another, etc. The study ultimately found that children exposed to parental conflict were more likely to report worrying about being abandoned by one or both parents. Furthermore, children who reported higher fear of abandonment were also more likely to report additional mental health problems 11 months later.
Before conducting this study, researchers hypothesized that kids who had strong relationships with one or both of their parents would experience less fear of abandonment and fewer mental health problems, since strong parent-child relationships generally create a stress buffer for children. However, they did not find a general buffering effect of parenting in this situation.
Karey O’Hara, a research assistant professor of psychology at ASU and the first author on the paper, stated “This was the most surprising finding for us. Good parenting is a very strong and powerful protective factor for all children, especially after a separation or divorce. But based on prior research, we know that the effect of good parenting is complicated in separated/divorced families.” She then added that although good parenting is protective, it may not be enough to cancel out the negative effects of conflict.
Parents can do something about it, though. In her research paper, O’Hara urges parents not to argue or fight in front of the children. She suggests that parents be extra careful when they’re around the other parent if there is a chance for conflict, and that parents make a conscious effort not to say things that might make their children feel like they are caught in the middle and have to pick sides. In other words, she suggests no badmouthing the other parent or asking the child to spy or act as a messenger.
It is also important, particularly given the findings of the study, “for parents to make sure that their children know that although they are separated or divorced, they will continue to care for them,” in order to allay any fears of abandonment that the child might have.
Going through a separation, a divorce, or a contested custody case can certainly be difficult for children that are experiencing it. If you are a parent who is going through, or has gone through, a divorce or separation, take Karey O’Hara’s advice and try to avoid conflict with your ex and putting your children in the middle as much as possible. And if you don’t feel like you can control and mitigate conflict on your own, there is no shame in seeking help—ultimately it will make you a better parent and your children happier and healthier.
By: Logan Matura
At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., our Arizona Family Law Attorneys Gary Frank, Hanna Amar, and Logan Matura are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Phoenix Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator. He has also acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court, and served on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Law firm Partner, Hanna Amar is a highly-skilled Arizona Family Law Attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. She has extensive courtroom experience, and is also a certified mediator. Hanna has also acted as the President of the Young Lawyer’s Division of the Maricopa County Bar Association. Associate Attorney Logan Matura is an Arizona Family Law Attorney who received her Juris Doctor degree from New York Law School in Manhattan, NY. While in law school, she served as an intern for a Family Court judge in the Bronx, NY, and was a member of the Family Attorneys Mobilizing club. Our firm handles Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification actions, enforcement actions, grandparent and step-parent and non-parent rights, as well as other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, call us today at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com. We look forward to hearing from you.