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Separated Parents and the Continuum of Conflict

From Gary Direnfeld’s blog

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.

Moderately conflicted 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 In the daycare or school setting, children of moderately conflicted parents may at times appear sullen or withdrawn or angry or distracted.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 teacher.

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.


Gary Direnfeld

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead and the parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator. His book, Marriage Rescue… MORE >

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