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Effects of High-Conflict coParenting on Children

By the time a child grows into an adult, they should have experienced sufficient secure relationships to be able to better manage close relationships as adults.
(4 minutes 17 seconds read)

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the President of High Conflict Institute.

Effects of High-Conflict coParenting on Children

By the time a child grows into an adult, he or she should have experienced sufficient secure primary attachment relationships to be able to better manage close relationships in adulthood with a balance of seeking behavior and exploring behavior. High-conflict coParenting may deprive children of these essential experiences because parents are often too busy fighting one another.

If children grew up with only insecure attachments, they will still have attachment needs. They may still be looking for an out-of-balance preoccupied relationship that’s incredibly close or an out-of-balance dismissive relationship with lots of disdain – because feeling close would feel too threatening but they still want a relationship nonetheless. These are the only relationships that feel secure by the time they reach adulthood – but they are not secure attachments. They cause the creation of out-of-balance relationships, as the other party usually discovers, sooner or later.

If an adult love relationship is a substitute for an early childhood secure attachment relationship they never had, it may truly feel like they will die if their partner leaves. That may explain why so many high-conflict people “can’t just let go.” They have to have a partner they can cling to or a partner they can treat with disdain – or both. If you don’t understand this, you won’t be able to realistically prepare for their reactions during a separation or divorce. All of that seemingly strange behavior (excessive clinging, manipulation, threats) makes sense if you picture the person as a 12-month-old desperate for survival.

While it doesn’t seem to make sense that an adult would hurt a spouse or child they love, it may be that they are acting out the abandonment, fear or rage that an infant feels and never learned to manage. If you picture a 3-year-old crying on the floor to get attention, you may have an accurate picture of what some 20- 30- 40- 50- 60-year-olds are doing, who never had a secure relationship and are now facing the loss of the closest thing to it they ever had.

Insecure attachment may explain why a parent could cling so desperately to one or more of their children, and put so much effort into eliminating the other parent after a separation (“this child is mine, all mine”). This could explain why the parent’s behavior doesn’t change, even over ten years, because the insecure attachment issue hasn’t changed – even though this behavior may have extreme consequences. This is a key characteristic of personality disorders. They don’t change over time. They are stuck in the past and not working in their own present self-interest – or that of their children. They’re trying to establish a secure attachment relationship.

This could explain why a parent would run away with a child – to protect their primary attachment relationship. This could also explain why, in so many alienation cases, only one child is alienated. The parent only clings to that one child and that one child is the only one who rejects the other parent. In many of my alienation cases, the other child or children stay neutral about both parents or at least do not reject one parent even if they favor the other.

Insecure attachment behavior could explain why so many of the cases I’ve seen where both parents appear to have high-conflict personalities don’t have an alienation issue. The children’s attachment behavior is “turned on” much of the time with both parents. The child or children are busy keeping both of them calmed down, as little diplomats, without rejecting either parent – but sacrificing their own sense of self and not learning the relationship skills they need.

If a child learns that one parent can truly provide a secure attachment relationship (balance of reassurance and freedom to explore), then the child doesn’t need to be in fear about that parent’s moods. They can just be kids with that parent. But the kids know that they better be allies for their high conflict parent. I have seen several of these reasonable parents do everything right, but the child becomes alienated and enmeshed with their high conflict parent – because such a relationship requires all of their attachment behavior and energy.

For the high conflict parent, the people (professionals, friends, and family) who support this attachment obsession will be viewed as the “all-good” people. Those who try to force the parent to share their child with the other parent will be seen as the “all-bad” people. Understanding this may help us design our responses as professionals and reasonable parents. Otherwise, we get split and remain split.

Understanding all of this does not justify violence or alienation. But if we don’t understand it, we will be doomed to repeat it through the generations. This may be what the children are learning and carrying into their adult relationships if we don’t break the cycle of insecure attachments especially when coParenting where high conflict is prevalent.

Excerpt from Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High-Conflict Divorce. By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Published by HCI Press

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