Fighting With an Ex or Soon-to-Be Ex? Minimize the Damage

7 min read

If you are a child of divorce, you may know from your own experience how parents’ conflict can have a significant and lasting negative impact on children’s well-being and development. If you are separated or divorced, I’m certain that you don’t want your children to suffer damage from the changes in the family, especially if you feel your parents’ divorce impacted you.

This is the good news, backed by research: Parents who end their conflict can help their children through the restructuring of the family. These children adjust and build resilience, and suffer minimal long-term damage. Your children need both of you to parent them, even if you don’t like each other anymore. Can you put your kids’ welfare ahead of your feelings about your ex and work toward a cooperative co-parenting relationship? If you are going through a separation or divorce, here’s what you need to know so that your children thrive.

How Parental Conflict Can Harm Children, and How to Prevent Harm

Emotional Distress: Children exposed to ongoing parental conflict often experience feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger. They feel caught in the middle of their parents’ disputes and may blame themselves for the conflict. They worry about their parents’ arguments and the stability of their family life. They may feel pressured to choose sides or act as intermediaries between their parents, leading to a sense of divided loyalty and confusion.

  • Instead: Find a way to end the conflict with your ex. Set boundaries if necessary. Do whatever it takes. Commit to communication via email or through intermediaries if necessary. If your ex baits you, don’t take the bait. Breathe, stay calm, and vent to a friend or therapist, not to your children. Don’t let your children become spies, messengers, allies, or confidantes.

Interference With Coping Skills: Children learn how to cope with stress and conflict by observing their parents. If they see their parents engaging in unhealthy conflict resolution tactics, they may adopt similar behaviors in their own relationships.

  • Instead: Model healthy coping skills. Show your children healthy problem-solving skills, and how to compromise. Model respect for your ex. This pays off for your children as they learn about relationships and communication.

Insecurity and Fear: Frequent arguments and hostility between parents can create an unstable and unpredictable environment for children. This can lead to feelings of insecurity and fear, as children never know when the next conflict will occur. The constant tension and turmoil in the home can lead to an overall lower quality of life for children, affecting their happiness and overall well-being.

  • Instead: Strive to make your home a peaceful place, and keep your children’s routines as stable and consistent as possible. For example, avoid confrontations with your ex as they are dropped off or picked up. This is a time when kids are especially fragile. Don’t speak negatively of your ex in front of your kids.

Behavioral Problems: Children from homes with high levels of parental conflict are more likely to exhibit behavioral problems such as aggression, defiance, and acting out. They are at a higher risk of engaging in risky behaviors such as substance abuse and delinquency. They may struggle to regulate their emotions and behavior. Other children may shut down and withdraw. This is true whether the parents are still married or divorced.

  • Instead: Observe your children’s behavior and if you see signs of behavior disturbances, intervene immediately. Get help from a mentor or therapist. At the same time, monitor yourself carefully to avoid conflicts with your ex. If appropriate, involve the school to provide more support for your child.

Academic Difficulties: The stress and emotional turmoil caused by parental conflict can interfere with a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school. This can lead to lower academic achievement.

  • Instead: Children need to focus on being kids. If they are stressed by your conflicts, they can’t focus on school, friends, or other interests. Early in the divorce, this is fairly common, but if your children continue to struggle or lose interest in school, provide the help they need. Consult with the school as well.

Physical Health Issues: Prolonged exposure to stress from parental conflict can have negative effects on a child’s physical health. It may weaken their immune system and make them more susceptible to illness. These effects can last well into adulthood.

  • Instead: Help your children adjust to the changes in the family while you work to end the conflict with your ex. Help your kids learn healthy habits such as healthy eating, sleeping, hygiene, and exercise.

Social Problems: Children who witness ongoing parental conflict may have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships with peers and adults. They may struggle with trust and communication skills. Children may isolate themselves from friends and family due to embarrassment or shame related to their parents’ conflict. This can hinder their social development and ability to form positive peer relationships. Long term, they may have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships in adulthood. They may struggle with trust and intimacy. There is a risk that they may repeat these high-conflict patterns in their own relationships, perpetuating a cycle of conflict across generations.

  • Instead: Pay attention to your children’s social development. Children should have at least one good friend. If you notice that your children have withdrawn from friends or lost friends, talk with them about it. Arrange playdates for younger children. Help your children reconnect with friends. Make sure that your conversations with your ex happen away from your children, and work to create a neutral tone in your interactions with your ex.

Long-Term Psychological Effects: In some cases, exposure to high levels of parental conflict during childhood can contribute to long-term psychological issues in adulthood, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and relationship difficulties. Children may also develop behavioral problems as a way to cope with their emotions. Unfortunately, long-term emotional scars can result. The negative effects of parental conflict can persist into adulthood, leading to difficulties in forming healthy adult relationships.

  • Instead: Encourage your children’s open expression of feelings and help them make sense of their new family structure without blaming their other parent. Normalize feelings of anger, grief, and anxiety, and provide support. At the same time, reflect on your own ability to end the conflict with your ex, in whatever way possible.

Not all conflict is harmful to children. However, chronic and hostile conflict is more likely to have detrimental effects. The severity of the impact can vary depending on factors such as the frequency, intensity, and resolution of the conflicts, as well as the presence of protective factors such as a strong support network.

Interventions such as counseling and mediation can help parents address and resolve their conflicts in healthier ways. Constructive conflict resolution, in which parents address issues respectfully and find solutions together, can model healthy communication skills for children. Providing a stable and loving environment is crucial for a child’s healthy development. If you need to develop a parallel parenting plan in order to end the conflict, get the help of a mediator or therapist. A parallel parenting plan puts a “firewall” between you, and while most parents hope for more cooperative co-parenting, a parallel parenting plan is the best thing for children when their parents cannot stop their fighting.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2023

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