From the Therapist's Desk

Parental Conflict: Stay Together for the Kids or Separate?

Some researchers on divorce and family breakup in high conflict families have looked at the question many parents ask. Is it better for the children if the parents separate? Or is it better for the children if the parents stay together?

The answer? Conflict and negativity harm children. Hostility and parental warmth are at opposite ends of the parenting spectrum. The hostility end of the parenting spectrum is devastating to children. The parental warmth end of the spectrum is as necessary as food and water for the health of a child.

Conflict between parents is harmful to children regardless of the living arrangements. It is estimated that between 20 and 25 percent of children experience high conflict during the marriage of their parents. Some parents are able to reduce conflict after the breakup of the family. Unfortunately, some parents are unable to reduce conflict.

Sometimes it is both parents who continue the war zone mentality of a battle to the death of the opponent. And sometimes it is only one parent who continues to compete for the win. And it only takes one parent to continue the hostility and conflict in the coparenting relationship. It only takes one parent to create an environment in the home that feels like a war zone: threatening, abusive, blaming, accusatory, and quietly or loudly violent -- whether physical or verbal or emotional -- with a child feeling caught in the middle of the battle.

Researchers have found that parental warmth is the one parenting action/expression/attitude that can truly protect a child from adult conflict. Parental warmth only takes one parent. If either Mom or Dad can make that commitment to care for self, and focus on the children, then the potential for enough expressions of parental warmth are high!

When both parents are preoccupied or overwhelmed by emotional challenges and emotional reactivity related to the adult conflict then the outcome for the children will almost always be negative. Overwhelmed and preoccupied parents practice poor parenting because they tend to use harsher discipline than they normally would or use ineffective discipline.

Your children deserve peace in at least one of their homes! Be the bigger person. Practice positive parenting and cooperative coparenting regardless of the other parent's choices. It only takes one parent to stop criticizing the other parent; to stop analyzing ways to win; to stop making money more important than peace; to start treating children like people instead of property; to start setting and maintaining healthy boundaries between Moms House and Dads House.

Even better if both Mom and Dad realize that a hostile family environment is destructive for everyone, but especially the children. Parents make choices. Parents are not forced to be angry or hostile or self-centered or self righteous.

If you are overwhelmed, feeling negative, and able to admit that reality to yourself then get some support and help that is positive. Conflict hurts children. Peace nurtures children. It's not mysterious. Choose peace in your home.