High-Conflict Divorce: Impact on Children

High-Conflict Divorce: Impact on Children

Author: Jerrod Brown, Carlo A. Giacomoni, & Cody Charette


High-conflict divorce is problematic among adults. For children of parents going through a high-conflict divorce the ramifications can be very detrimental. It is imperative for adults experiencing a divorce to provide a safe, welcoming, warm environment for their children. If parent cannot get along for their own mental health, then they must do so for the sake of their children. We review several typologies of post-divorce parenting, and provide suggestions to minimize the pain and trauma inflicted on children following divorce


The divorce decree is signed.  There is an understanding, in the form of a custody agreement (on paper at least), about the when, where, and how of the children’s placement schedule.  Details have been worked out regarding how much and who will pay child support, educational and medical costs, and the children’s health insurance.  Yet, too often, the battle rages on with the children are stuck in the middle. The parents perpetually return to court to address a myriad of concerns including custody arrangement disputes, the obtaining or renewal of an order of protection, the filing of civil lawsuits for claimed damages (e.g. vandalizing a car), or the testimony required during a criminal trial for allegations of domestic violence or other criminal activity witnessed by one party in the relationship.

When divorce involves children the unpleasant reality for many families is that while the marriage has ended, contact between the parents must continue until the children reach the age of majority.  Each and every day many parents are able to put aside their differences for the sake of their children, the fact remains that some parents are simply not capable of doing so.  Ahrons (2004) outlined four parenting relationship typologies following a divorce: parenting pals in which the parents generally get along well, cooperative colleagues in which parents learn to manage their differences for the benefit of the children, angry associates in which the parents have numerous conflicts, and fiery foes in which the parents share a mutual hatred for one another.  The latter two sets of parents are prone to high-conflict divorce.  It is also notable that in several families one of the parents tries to be cooperative for the sake of the children, while the other parent is more argumentative.

High-Conflict Divorce

In a perfect world adults would end their marriages and remain civil for the benefit of their children, even if they could not or would not for themselves alone.   However, this outcome is not always possible in the real world. As was stated above, there are a variety of reasons parents have difficulty remaining civil during or subsequent to the dissolution of their marriage.  Conflicts typically stem from difficulties for one or both parents properly managing their emotions related to the divorce stress, and co-parenting obligations and demands.  These emotions can stem from feeling rejected and abandoned by the other parent, contempt and disrespect toward a new stepparent, or ordinary jealousy if the children express a real, or even just a perceived, preference for the other parent.

As a result of limited coping mechanisms, poor impulse control, or substance use either individually or in conjunction with one another these emotions can escalate to accusations of child alienation, contempt of a court order, domestic violence, or other similar adverse outcomes.  Parents may also engage in inappropriate behavior by using their children as confidants for emotional support, messengers to communicate information (or misinformation) to the other parent, or as spies to report the activities of the other parent.  Alternatively, parents may openly demean the other parent in front of the children, ask or demand the children to ‘pick sides’ between the parents, or ‘bribe’ the children in order to gain favor over the other parent.  These parents often engage in such behaviors without regard for or awareness of how such behavior negatively impacts their children’s psychological development in terms of personality, sense of self, and self worth.  Whenever any of these behaviors takes place, regardless of the intention of the parent, the children are caught in the crossfire as collateral damage in a battle they may not be able to fully comprehend or process appropriately.

Divorce and Children

Children of divorced parents have the same emotional needs as children of married parents. These include a sense of safety, stability, attention, and support.  However, divorce places additional burdens upon children that parents must be sensitive to when they communicate and interact with their former partner. In this context the burdens these children bear may consist of integration, or blending, of new family members, divided loyalties, an undercutting of love and respect through the disclosure of past indiscretions including arrests or convictions, or modeling of inappropriate behavior by those they love and trust most.

If divorcing parents lack insight or sensitivity when communicating with or behaving around their children they may cause their children to feel abandoned or unheard. Children can reasonably expect their parents to be able to work through and resolve their differences constructively in a mature and straightforward manner.  When divorcing parents are unable to do this their failure to do so may disturb their children’s basic feelings of safety and innate belief their parents will care for them.

Inevitably, children whose parents engage in a high-conflict divorce may develop a host of psychological difficulties including: trust establishment issues; behavioral problems, attention and focus deficiencies, and coping problems. Each of these alone, or in concert, can then lead to a damaged concept of self, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, or spiritual confusion.  In the absence of necessary support and resources some children may turn to substances to cope with their issues.

The problems are particularly pronounced, and damage sharply enhanced, if the children have witnessed domestic violence or been victims of neglect or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse by caregivers.  Unfortunately, domestic violence, occurs in cases of high-conflict divorce. Children who repeatedly witness this violence often suffer adverse outcomes.  Their inappropriate coping behavior, both internally and externally, often persists into adulthood affecting their social and romantic relationships.

Moving Forward Constructively

The strain on time, money, and emotions that accompany divorce proceedings is debilitating to an adult’s self-esteem and physical well-being. The tension felt between the affected partners directly impacts how the relationship goes forward. In order to minimize the impact on the entire family during such a particularly draining time it is important for parents to actively seek solutions rather than engaging in arguments.  By working on unresolved personal issues and committing to self-care parents can help to keep the high-conflict divorce manageable and its ramifications minimized.  Various forms of therapy for the divorcing parties may also help create a positive transitional space where both partners can comfortably express their feelings and discuss problems in a safe environment.  Therapy may also be appropriate for children showing signs of difficulty coping, blaming themselves, or exhibiting other behavioral and emotional-related symptoms.


When parents are hostile to one another contentious separations can turn into high-conflict divorces that generate ongoing stress for everyone involved.  Children whose parents fail to model good communication skills and create a secure home environment, free of abuse and drama, can experience emotional and physical trauma that can impact them well into adulthood.  Indeed, children need strong, nurturing role models while a divorce is ongoing.  The greater the conflict the more vital social and organizational support becomes to maintain the welfare of the child.  Children are the future; therefore, it is essential to promote positive and healthy relationships – even in the midst of stressful divorces so they do not morph into high-conflict divorces. 


Ahrons, C. (2004).  We’re still family: What grown children have to say about their parents’ divorce.  New York: HarperCollins.

Author Biographies

Jerrod Brown, MA, MS, MS, MS, is the Treatment Director for Pathways Counseling Center, Inc. Pathways provides programs and services benefiting individuals impacted by mental illness and addictions. Jerrod is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS) and the Editor-in-Chief of Forensic Scholars Today (FST). Jerrod is currently in the dissertation phase of his doctorate degree program in psychology.


Carlo A. Giacomoni, PsyD, ABPP is a psychologist at North Star Mental Health, LLC, in the Twin Cities.  He is board certified in clinical psychology, and has considerable experience in a variety of forensic evaluations.  Dr. Giacomoni has extensive training and experience in both parenting evaluations and child custody evaluations.


Cody Charette holds a Ph.D. from the Psychology, Policy, and Law program of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University located in Fresno, CA. He specializes in threat assessment, deception detection, intelligence analysis, and the use of technology for indirect assessment of offenders. In addition to his degrees in Psychology, Cody holds a bachelors of science in business information systems with mathematics minor and an MBA in marketing both from California State University, Fresno.