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Separated Parents and the Continuum of Conflict

November 4, 2014

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arrangements.In the daycare or school setting, children of moderately conflicted parents may at times appear sullen or withdrawn or angry or distracted.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

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I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

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  1. Gary,
    I do agree with you but when there is a sick child (I don’t mean a cold but a serious concern) or an emotional or a school crisis with a child, parents do need to communicate even those high conflict parents. Then it becomes a real challenge and the sick child is stuck in between. So sad…

    • James permalink

      Gary it is very sad, but I do believe more needs to be done to protect children and never more than in the times we are currently living. Family breakdown is a social crisis occurring at such a fast rate that the systems set up to service it are lagging and ill equipped to protect young people. It’s beyond sad it’s criminal in some cases. It’s easy to assess physical damage not so easy to assess psychological damage.

  2. Agreed Jennifer,

    But even in the event of sickness, provisions can be made in the parenting plan to to address minor illnesses, such as who will be responsible for what and when.

    I even include provisions for emergency care in terms of how/when parents notify each other and who can attend at hospital under given scenarios.

    Even with the most detailed of plans and even if decision making authority is invested in one parent, things can still go awry. We can only plan, put structures in place and at times, hope.

    Other strategies include putting a third party intervenor in place to handle those issues that require communications. This third party intervenor is often referred to as a “Parenting Coordinator“, keeping in mind that for the highest of the high conflict separated parents, nothing may solve the problems.

    • James permalink

      Yes for the highest conflict parent (s) nothing may help. That said when people lack the ability to be reasonable there generally is some underlying issue that are effecting that individuals mental health be it past trauma, or a personality disorder.

  3. James permalink

    I agree for the most part and without a doubt the better the parents get along the better it is for everyone especially the children. With high conflict parent separation I agree it can be both or initially start with both but not continue they way. One parent can maintain a high degree of conflict merely by using what’s available to leverage control and that leverage may actually be the kids. Parental alienation may be at play either placing kids in the middle or having them make a decision to side with the alienating parent; leaving the other parent crying out for someone to notice that this is happening and it is psychologically unhealthy for their child. In this case if there is a reasonable parent this parent backs off knowing that attempting to engage their children will only make things worse. It is extremely difficult to be the parent who has to stepback while the alienating parent becomes the gate keeper. All communication with the children if any is vetted through the gatekeeper and who knows how something is communicated but you can bet it’s not shedding a good light on the outside parent.
    Parental alienation is a tough one and if the child has been successfully brainwashed they fully believe that one parent is the boogie man or boogie woman; that becomes their truth.
    It easy to lump both parents into the mix as being equAlly combative and adding to conflict if you fail to probe deep enough. Parent alienation can leave the alienated parent in ongoing grief for the children they love and lost with regard to why the children turned. The alienated parent can feel helpless and hopeless as their is little that can be done without causing further damage to those they love.
    Just as being a doctor of medicine does not give immunity to disease nor does a behavioural professional have immunity to experiencing a highly conflitual separation/divorce. That said a lot of insight can be gained though having such an experience.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Right of First Refusal – Pandora’s Box | Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
  2. The Way Parents Fight Affects Kids’ Self-Esteem (In All Kinds Of Families) | Getting In Touch with the Law: Lawyers Review Blog
  3. The Way Parents Fight Affects Kids’ Self-Esteem (In All Kinds Of Families) | Best Attorneys Network

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