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Separated Parents and the Continuum of Conflict
Not all parental
separations are alike and not all parental separations spell disaster for their
children. The social science research advises that the most salient factor in
determining risk for poor developmental outcomes for children subject to
parental divorce is the level of conflict between the parents.
Degree of parental conflict
can be thought of as a continuum:
Although estimates vary
somewhat, in general terms, most separating parents (80%) fall somewhere between
the low to moderate degree of conflict on this continuum.
Low conflict separated
parents typically hold little to no animosity towards each other, can resolve
their differences amicably and support each other with regard to parenting
decisions. These parents require little in terms of third party help. In the
daycare or school setting, care providers and teachers likely wouldn’t even be
aware the child’s parents had separated.
parents typically do hold a modicum of anger or animosity towards each other.
The parents can be at different stages of their emotional adjustment.
Differences can escalate to conflict which at times can require the help of
third parties to resolve. Those third parties can include lawyers, mediators and
counselors. Most often, with the help of a third party, parental differences do
get resolved and the parents honor their parenting arrangements. In the daycare
or school setting, children of moderately conflicted parents may at times appear
sullen or withdrawn or angry or distracted. On the basis of behavior associated
with those emotions, a child may come to the attention of the care provider or
With regard to high
conflict separated parents, at least one parent, if not both, holds a great deal
of animosity. One or both parents will vilify the other. One or both will
present themselves as the victim of the other. One or both will also present
themselves as holding the best interests of the child on a greater basis than
the other. Conflict tends to be unremitting and as soon as one issue is
resolved, several others may surface. There may or may not be a realistic basis
to some or all the complaints one parent has of the other. Children in these
situations tend to be caught in the middle. They are often used as go-betweens
and they are often exposed to the parental animosity. These children are at risk
of surfacing with behavioral, emotional and psychological issues that interfere
with daily functioning.
Interventions aimed at
supporting separated parents through their transition from living together in
one home to living apart with the children transferring between them will differ
depending on the level of conflict between them. Further, the degree to which
parental collaboration should be encouraged will also differ depending on their
level of conflict.
Common thinking suggests
that all parents should get along and discuss any and all matters concerning the
children. In a perfect world, that would benefit the kids. However,
understanding that conflict itself is poison to a child’s development and some
parents remain high conflict, intervention is not always aimed at facilitating
communication and cooperation.
The greater the parental
conflict the more likely that an increase of communication and expected
cooperation will only intensify the conflict. As such, while interventions for
the low to moderate conflicted separated parents can and should be aimed at
facilitating communication and cooperation, with the high conflict separated
parents interventions are best aimed at facilitating their disengagement. For
the high conflict separated parents, the adage, tall fences make good
neighbors should guide intervention.
The goal with high conflict
separated parents is to structure a parenting plan that reduces the necessity
for parental communication, contact and problem solving. To affect this, the
parenting plan tends to be highly structured and somewhat rigid. Parents are not
to rely upon each other. Each will have their own supports available to minimize
either having to depend on the other understanding that all points of contact
provide risk for re-engagement in conflict – poison to the children.
Working with separated
parents, workers have to distinguish between the is and the ought. While
separated parents ought to get along, that isn’t always what is.
We work with what is, first and foremost. If the parents present in such
a manner to suggest they can learn and change behavior to reduce their level of
conflict, then over time, their parenting plan can allow for more flexibility.
Parental peace, reducing
conflict, that is the goal and most predictive of children’s well being, both
in childhood and their adult life.
Separated parents: Please
play nicely and if you can’t, then leave each other alone.
Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
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