Toxic Co-parenting’s Effect on Kids
October 21, 2018
Concerned about how your conflict affects your kids? Debra Carter explains why you should be. (2 min 32 sec read)

Dr. Debra Carter

Anger and conflict during divorce hurts children both now and later. It can affect how well they do in school and how they relate to friends now. It is not the divorce itself but rather the toxicity that can stem from the divorce and carry on into the co-parenting relationship. Later in life, it can affect how they choose a wife or husband, and whether they can make a marriage last. Children who see, hear and feel this conflict will be hurt. It is not a question of if children will be hurt by conflict in a divorce, it’s how much they will be hurt particularly when children are the focus or used to express the conflict.

Parent Behaviors That Put Children in the Middle:

• Asking children to carry hostile messages to the other parent

• Asking intrusive questions about the other parent

• Creating a need for children to hide information

• Creating a need for children to conceal their feelings about the other parent

• Demeaning or contemptuous of the other parent

Research proves that conflict between co-parents hurts children. A study by Dr. Irwin Sandler in 2013 showed that conflict between parents poses the greatest risk for harm to children—not the divorce itself. Even very young children notice conflict and will be harmed by it. The problem is, you won’t see the harm right away. It looks like your children are doing okay but they may not be fine. The conflict leaves scars that may never heal if not addressed.

When I work with parents who don’t want to change, I tell them, “It’s your choice how many scars you will leave on the hearts of your children.” Another way to think of this harm is that it’s like leaving a car running in the garage. The conflict between you and your ex is the running car. As long as the car is running, the poisonous fumes will seep into the garage. You can’t see the fumes, but they are there, causing damage. As long as you leave the car running, your children will breathe the fumes. But if you take the car out of the garage and drive away, the children won’t be near the fumes. You may still have to deal with the fumes, deal with them away from the children.

Another choice is turn the car off, open the garage door, and air out the garage. Either way works. You will protect your children. And that, after all, is your job as a parent. You may be thinking that if your children have a good relationship with you, it will cancel out any bad feelings they might have from noticing the tension between you and your ex. Not true.

A study conducted by Dr. Mavis Hetherington revealed that having good feelings for one parent can help alleviate only some of the stress the child feels about the conflict between parents. Children will still show negative effects from the hostility between parents. The longer the argument or conflict, the worse the effects are on children. What parents argue about doesn’t matter. Children respond to the feeling of hostility, not to what is being said.


Written by Dr. Debra Carter

Dr. Carter is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, Florida Supreme Court Certified Family Law Mediator, and a Parent Coordinator. She is Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Director of the National Cooperative Parenting Center (NCPC) offering a wide spectrum of services to the Mental Health and Legal Communities as well as to families and children who are struggling with divorce-related issues. She is a frequent expert to the court, and an international speaker, lecturer, and trainer on parenting in divorce. She is a consultant to the US Department of State in matters of international child custody. Dr. Carter is the leader in the development of standardized Parental Responsibility Guidelines emphasizing the needs of children in divorce, which have been adopted and endorsed by the court. She has received numerous awards including the prestigious “John E. Van Duzer Distinguished Service Award” from the International Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. Her work can be found through Unhooked Books:

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