Divorced Parents’ Conflict May Cause Mental Health Issues In Their Children

According to a study, when youngsters witness tension between their divorced or separated parents, they fear abandonment. This fear of abandonment in response to interparental conflict was linked to future mental health difficulties in children, particularly in children who had close relationships with their fathers.

Conflict between divorced or separated parents raises the likelihood of physical and mental health problems in children.

According to a new study from Arizona State University’s Research and Education Advancing youngsters’ Health (REACH) Institute, youngsters dread being abandoned when their divorced or separated parents fight. Fear of abandonment predicted future mental health problems in youngsters. The study was published in the journal of Child Development.

Conflict a salient stressor for kids

“Conflict is a salient stressor for kids, and the link between exposure to interparental conflict and mental health problems in children is well established across all family types — married, cohabitating, separated and divorced,” said Karey O’Hara, a research assistant professor of psychology at ASU and first author on the paper. “Conflict between divorced or separated parents predicted children experiencing fear that they would be abandoned by one or both parents. This feeling was associated with future mental health problems, especially for those who had strong relationships with their fathers,” she adds.

According to research involving children from households with married or cohabiting parents, children perceive interparental conflict as a threat, frequently asking if their parents will split.

Children witnessing interparental conflict are prone to fear of abandonment

The researchers surveyed families participating in the New Beginnings Programme, asking 559 children (aged 9-18 years) about their exposure to conflict to better understand how children with divorced or separated parents viewed interparental conflict. The questions ranged from if their parents argued in front of them, spoke negatively about the other parent, or requested their children to convey messages. Children who witnessed interparental conflict were more prone to fear being abandoned by one or both of their parents.

“When parents who are married or cohabitating engage in conflict, the child might worry about their parents separating,” O’Hara said. “But children whose parents are divorced or separated have already seen the dissolution of their family. The idea that they might be abandoned might be unlikely, but it is not illogical from their perspective.”

The dread of abandonment persisted: parental disagreement predicted abandonment worry three months later. Worrying about desertion predicted mental health difficulties 10 months later, according to the children and their teachers.

Good parent-child interactions protect children from stress

Because good parent-child interactions are known to protect children from stress, the researchers predicted that children who had excellent relationships with their parents would have less fear of abandonment and mental health concerns. However, the researchers did not discover a general buffering effect of parenting.

“A strong father-child relationship came at a cost when interparental conflict was high,” O’Hara said. “Having a high-quality parenting relationship is protective, but it is possible that quality parenting alone is not enough in the context of high levels of interparental conflict between divorced parents,” she explained.

The purpose of ASU’s REACH institute is to translate laboratory research boosting children’s well-being into practise, and the research team is now working on developing an intervention to assist children in coping with parental conflict following divorce. ASU’s REACH Institute’s C. Aubrey Rhodes, Sharlene Wolchik, Irwin Sandler, and Jenn Yun-Tien also contributed to the effort. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development all provided funding for this study.

Story Source:
Materials provided by Arizona State University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
Karey L. O’Hara, C. Aubrey Rhodes, Sharlene A. Wolchik, Irwin N. Sandler, Jenn Yun‐Tein. Longitudinal Effects of PostDivorce Interparental Conflict on Children’s Mental Health Problems Through Fear of Abandonment: Does Parenting Quality Play a Buffering Role? Child Development, Jan. 12, 2021; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13539

Page citation:
Arizona State University. “Conflict between divorced parents can lead to mental health problems in children, study finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 January 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210112110157.htm>.

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