Articles by Jacqueline McDiarmid, Break ups, Children, Family counselling, Post Separation, Relationships

Is conflict with my ex hurting our kids?

As a Family Therapist one of the most common presentations I see is separated parents who are continually in conflict or hostile toward each other – and worried about how their fighting is affecting their children.

Some separated parents fight because they have differing parenting styles. Sometimes the involvement of step-parents is problematic. And sometimes there is a parent who does not feel they have enough access to their child or children.

But they all have difficulty stopping the hostility, resentment and fighting.

Any kind of parental conflict (whether it be between parents who are still together or separated) causes stress on a child. We know from research that a child’s cortisol levels are generally higher when parents are in conflict. High cortisol levels impact a child’s cognitive ability, making it difficult for them to concentrate at school.  We also know that when parents are in high conflict, their children often end up with emotional and social problems. In high conflict families I often see children with high anxiety or low mood – mental health problems.

Many of these children or teenagers tell me they feel caught between their parents. They say they don’t feel able to say what they really think or feel at home, because they’re worried they’ll hurt one of their parents or let them down. Older kids often carry the burden of thinking they have to choose one parent over another. Or, they carry the greater burden of being the emotional supporter of a parent who has disclosed information about the other parent. Sadly, what often happens is children don’t really feel like they want to be with either parent. The pressure is too much.

Research tells us that children of divorced or separated parents are twice as likely to experience social, academic and behavioural problems. However, ongoing high conflict between parents who are separated causes the greatest stress on child/children.  For this reason, setting up good non-reactive communication patterns between the separated parents is crucial.

Here are some examples of inappropriate behaviour I see from separated parents:

  • A parent who demeans or undermines the other parent in front of the child and or other people.
  • A parent who shares information about the other parent’s bad behaviour.
  • A parent who does not support the child to have meaningful time with the other parent.
  • A parent who does not allow a child to talk naturally and positively about their other parent.
  • A parent whose rules are too rigid and does not allow for flexibility on occasions involving the other parent.
  • A parent who asks a child to carry hostile messages to the other parent.
  • A parent who asks a child/teenager intrusive questions about the other parent.
  • A parent who does not allow or encourage the child to communicate with the other parent.
  • A parent who punishes a child or teenager either overtly or covertly for wanting to spend more time with the other parent.
  • A parent who does not work with the other parent to provide a similar routine and rules for the child.

Many parents forget that their child is also part of the other parent and their family. This means when a parent demeans the other parent they are also demeaning their child.

Ten things you can do to reduce potential damage to your children if you are fighting:

  1. Simply make a decision to stop all conflict. If you just can’t agree on parenting styles or decisions, book in to see a Family Therapist and they will help you with this.
  2. Emails and text messages should be just about practical arrangements and information about the child/teenager. Take all emotions and commentary out of this type of communication. If you are upset with the other parent, call them instead and/or consider post-separation counselling.
  3. Make transition from one home to the other a positive, conflict-free experience for your kids. Transition time is not the time for conflict. The child is already likely to be anxious – don’t add to their discomfort by fighting.
  4. If you need to discuss grievances, do it away from the child/children.
  5. Encourage your child/teenager to spend time with the other parent.
  6. Don’t disclose or burden your child/teenager with your feelings about the other parent, and don’t criticise your ex-partner in front of the children.
  7. Don’t disclose your worries that result from the separation with the child/teenager – e.g. financial concerns.
  8. Don’t take it personally if your child or teenager wants to spend more time with the other parent, or says that they miss the other parent.
  9. Make time to communicate with the other parent about your child’s development. Do it regularly.
  10. Discuss with your ex how you can both support each other to be the best co-parents you can be.

High conflict between separated parents peaks in the first three years after separation. This is a crucial time to get help from a Family Counsellor.  A Family Therapist will work with you both to set up positive communication patterns, to set up new routines, navigate through transition from one home to the next, and to manage emotions when you’re around each other.

If you have been through the Family Court for custody or there are step-parents now involved, I’d say Family Counselling is vital.  It is not uncommon for me to do family sessions where there are step-parents as well as the parents in the room.  I would much rather see parents invest in Family Counselling as soon as separation occurs than be in real strife years down the track when relationships are more difficult to repair and teenagers are struggling with significant problems.

And lastly remember you are the adults – your child or teenager might seem adult like at times but they are not.  They do not have the capability to manage adult emotions and stress.  Don’t take your stuff out on them.  Sometimes you just need to make the decision to stop the hostility because that’s the most loving thing you can do for your children.

If you and your ex require help to manage your conflict or parenting styles, please contact our receptionist today on 02 8968 9397 or contact us and we will support you to make the relationship changes you need to minimise the conflict and build a stronger co-parenting relationship..

The information in this article is adapted from a review of the research conducted by Kelly, J. (2012) Risk and protective factors associated with child and adolescent adjustment following separation and divorce: Social science applications, Chapter 3. In Eds. K. Kuehnle & L. Drozd. Parenting Plan Evaluations: Applied research for the family court, Oxford University Press, New York.

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