Divorce: How to Shield Children From Parental Conflict

Divorce: How to Shield Children From Parental Conflict

Divorce attorneys warn that children involved in a high-conflict divorce (HCD) are at heightened risk of post-traumatic stress symptoms. These symptoms can make it difficult for the child to heal and stunt their emotional and social growth moving forward. For this reason, divorce specialists encourage co-parents to have a co-parenting plan in place that emphasizes shielding the children from all types of potential parental conflict.

Emotional Impact on Children

Children of divorce often feel as if they’re put in the middle between their parents and forced to take a side. This is a very difficult scenario for a child to process. In some cases, a parent may actively put their kid in the middle, but in many scenarios, it occurs inadvertently. Co-parenting therapy often emphasizes this concept of being in the middle due to how damaging it is to kids. The symptoms common among HCD children include:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Poor performance in school
  • Risky or destructive behavior
  • Decreased interest in activities
  • Feelings of isolation and paranoia
  • Negative thinking about oneself and the world

How Parents Put Their Children in the Middle

Even parents who are acutely aware of the problem may inadvertently put their child in the middle. Another way to look at this is placing the child in an inappropriate role. That role may be unacceptable because it’s an adult’s role or because it forces or encourages the child to pick a side. This can happen when one or both of the parents, either intentionally or unintentionally, puts their own emotional and physical needs ahead of the needs of the child. Some common examples include:

  • Using the child as a messenger
  • Letting the child witness or overhear arguments
  • Making the child aware of financial-related stress
  • Putting the child in the role of confidant or therapist
  • Asking the child to keep secrets
  • Having the child act as a spy or interrogating them
  • Making disparaging comments about the other parent in front of the child
  • Fighting over a child as if they were property and not a person

Physical Impact on Children

The impact on children due to a high-conflict divorce is not limited to feelings. It causes ongoing stress and pressure that has negative physical consequences. Constant stress means that the body never finds homeostasis, which is a state of equilibrium and healing. That is hard on an adult let alone on a child who is still developing. The child is constantly in survival mode: the fight, flight and freeze responses. This suppresses the immune system, disrupts blood sugar levels and negatively affects serotonin levels. It even alters the areas of the brain essential for memory and learning. Physical manifestations can include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Frequent illnesses

Emotional Relationship Between Child and Parent

Parents should be aware that there is the potential for a negative feedback loop between them and their child. Children will adapt to the ongoing stress. One way they do this is by withholding their own needs and becoming more sensitive to yours. This can lead to the parent becoming more aware of their own needs and less aware of their child’s needs. Suppressing feelings and experiencing shame and negative lovability and value images can all lead to behaviors the parent struggles to understand. This can result in insecure bonding between the parent and child and long-term patterns of behavior that extend far beyond childhood and even into adulthood.

Protecting Your Children

Even if you do everything in your power to protect your child, you’ll likely make mistakes. Divorce is very difficult, and no one is perfect. The good news according to child psychology experts is the natural plasticity of our brains. You can shape your child’s development purposefully and in a healthy way even if you or your ex-spouse has exposed the child to an adverse experience. In other words, enough good will outweigh the bad.

The keys to positive development are:

  • United co-parenting
  • A solid co-parenting plan
  • Individual healing
  • A focus on the child
  • Allowing the child to love both parents


There are different types of co-parenting styles. Cooperative co-parenting is the ideal, but even it takes many different forms. The goal is to find the co-parenting strategy that best suits your family. It’s important to present a united front to the child. This way, the child never has to pick a side. Allow the child to love both parents. Be very careful never to infringe on that emotional space. Create direct lines of communication for both parents, and keep those flowing on a regular basis.

You may find that despite your best efforts your co-parent continues to put the child in the middle. It can be hard emotionally, but avoid the mistake of mirroring that behavior. Instead, model healthy communication, cooperation and good boundaries. If the child isn’t already seeing a therapist, you may want to consider it. This can help the child process the bad behavior of the other parent.

Individual Healing

Mental health professionals consider divorce among the most difficult experiences an adult ever has to deal with. It’s important that you set time aside to focus on yourself and heal. Therapy can be a great help in this regard. Process your past experiences, emotions and needs. Set a path forward that will allow you to be a happy and productive single adult and co-parent.

Focus on the Child

When with the child, your focus should be entirely on them. During a divorce, it can be difficult to remain present, so this should be an emphasis for you. Be empathetic. Give your child a voice, and help them to process their feelings. Focus on their needs, and emphasize the memories you want them to have. Many tough decisions in divorce are made much easier by asking yourself if this is what you want your child to remember when they look back. You should also monitor closely for potential in-the-middle scenarios. If one develops, diffuse it, and deal with it later between just you and your estranged spouse.

Actively Use Relaxation Strategies

Stress will inevitably be high during a divorce. The wrong strategy is to hope that you deal with it well. You should presume you won’t and take steps to mitigate it. Parents should also involve their children whenever possible as the relaxation techniques that help adults generally work for children as well. Regular cardiovascular exercise is a great place to start. You may also want to consider:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Music and art therapy
  • Healthy meals and snacking
  • Outdoor time away from screens

Legal Assistance in Bergen, Essex and Passaic Counties

At the Law Offices of Kelly Berton Rocco, we have extensive experience navigating New Jersey divorces. That includes developing co-parenting strategies and negotiating parenting time agreements even when there is conflict. If your marriage is coming to an end and you would like to protect your children, we want to help. Let’s begin with a review of your case by one of our divorce attorneys. Call us at 201-343-0078 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation at our Hackensack office.

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