- Evan: I can't take it anymore! Every time I get ready to go over to my Dad's, Mom tells me to make sure to tell Dad he owes her two months' support! Then, Dad tells me to bring a message to my mom that he's paying her too much! I just feel like running away from both of them.
- Kate: I know what you mean. I can't stand the way my Dad always asks me who Mom's been seeing. Then, he asks me to find out more about her dates and tell him.
- Matthew: My Mom and Dad can't keep from making snide remarks to each other when my Dad comes to pick me up. Why was I so unlucky to get parents who hate each other?
- Amy: I always feel pressured to take sides. Why don't they understand I need and love both of them? I don't want to side with one against the other!
Divorce is generally born of conflict. But when extreme conflict persists even after the couple has parted ways, the children of that marriage may find it difficult, if not impossible, to heal. Indeed, when parents cannot put their mutual anger aside, and when they sweep their young children into the conflict, they have ceased to protect their children.
Children of high-conflict divorce, torn between the two most important people in their lives, are often emotionally damaged by the struggle. According to psychologists, such children are often depressed and aggressive. Later, as adults, they often have difficulty maintaining intimate relationships. They are far more likely to divorce than adults who come from intact families or even divorced families at peace.
Because open conflict is most likely to take place at the time the children go from one home to the other, many psychologists specializing in divorced families now recommend that the number of transition times be reduced in high-conflict situations. Here are some specific recommendations for visitation schedules when open warfare rages:
- For moderate conflict: When parents function well on their own but fight when they are in contact with their ex-spouse, psychologists Mitchell Baris, Ph.D., and Carla Garrity, Ph.D., note that other creative solutions are necessary. Some of these may be minimizing transitions—packaging visitation into one block per week. For very young children, the midweek visits might be eliminated. For older children, the visits might be consolidated each week. These may need to be handled by a neutral third party or take place in neutral places.
- For moderately severe conflict. When there is constant litigation, and sometimes even physical threats or abuse between parents, children can suffer extreme emotional scars. In such cases, Baris and Garrity recommend caution. Mental health evaluation is mandatory, and supervised visitation may be recommended if the safety of a child is a concern.
- For severe conflict. In this situation, when children are at immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse, visitation should be supervised and a full mental health evaluation conducted.
Children of high-conflict divorce are often hit hardest, even when they seem upbeat on the outside. Parents who fail to notice the warning signs of a child in emotional trouble will pay a high price later. When does your child need help? New York psychologist Michelle Gersten, Ph.D., provides the following guidelines:
- Maladaptive personality changes of extreme intensity or duration. If your child has changed in any major way since the separation, trouble may be afoot. Characteristics to examine include inattentiveness, overactivity, aggression, shyness, or fearfulness. Maladaptive behaviors, of course, should set off alarms. Remember, all children involved in divorce will show minor difficulties, including eating and sleeping problems. But if these symptoms are short-lived, you probably don't have to be concerned. On the other hand, if a school-aged child who previously had healthy relations with her peers starts withdrawing from social activities, be on the lookout for trouble.
- Regression. If your child has regressed to behaviors from earlier stages of development, seek psychotherapy. Examples might include a 4-year-old who now has frequent accidents, despite successful toilet training previously, or an 8-year-old who speaks in baby talk.
- Extreme parental conflict. If the parents continue to fight in front of the child after the initial breakup, therapy may be required. If one parent is manipulative or continually undermines the other, psychotherapy for the child is indicated as well. In one case, a mother consistently failed to inform the father of plans and then told the child the father had simply failed to show. The father, in turn, told the child that the mother “just forgot.” The stress of the situation was arduous for the 5-year-old boy, who became confused about his alliances and ultimately needed therapy to successfully relate to his mom and his dad.