The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS (Continued)

Characteristics of high conflict divorcing families

A number of clinical and empirical studies have concluded that one of the most toxic factors contributing to the immediate and long-term negative outcomes for children is ongoing conflict between parents before and after divorce. These studies are very clear in their conclusions about the dangers to children of exposure to high conflict between their parents, but they are vague and inconsistent about how to define high conflict. One of the persistent difficulties in these studies is the lack of baseline measures for the "normal" level of conflict that one would expect in most divorcing families. Without this baseline, it is impossible to accurately determine the level of conflict that can be defined as "high conflict."

Recommendation 4

More empirical research is needed to develop an accurate measure of the conflict which can be defined as high conflict. Such research, using large sample groups, should begin by establishing baseline measures for the amount of conflict that normally exists in divorcing families as compared to intact families. Once this baseline is established, a second baseline of conflict levels can be determined for families that exhibit a number of the characteristics mentioned below.

In the absence of any accurate psychometric measures for high conflict families, a number of researchers have identified certain behavioural or emotional characteristics that typify what they refer to as high conflict divorces. The problem with these studies is that they try to identify behavioural or emotional characteristics that contribute to a state of affairs that is not clearly defined at the start. These characteristics are broken down into internal elements and external markers.

The internal elements are those characteristics that come to light as a result of careful investigation by a trained mental health professional. These include feelings, attitudes, belief systems and relationship dynamics, and are often identified during custody/access assessments.

Internal individual elements include:

  • a history of mental health difficulties, including depression, anger, withdrawal and uncommunicative behaviour;

  • a sense of powerlessness;

  • an overwhelming sense of unresolvable loss;

  • a history of violent and abusive behaviour;

  • a tendency to vilify the other parent;

  • a poor sense of personal autonomy beyond the marital relationship;

  • an inability to separate the parents’ needs from the child’s needs;

  • a high degree of distrust;

  • rigid and inflexible thinking about relationships and child development;

  • a history of addictions and substance abuse; and

  • generalized anger towards life in general and members of the opposite sex.

Internal relationship characteristics include:

  • a tendency towards enmeshment rather than autonomy;

  • a poor sense of boundaries;

  • a high degree of competitiveness in the marriage and in the separation;

  • verbal and physical aggression between the parents;

  • a tendency to involve the children in the disputes; and

  • a pattern of alienating the child from the other parent.

External markers tend to be quantitative in nature and can be noted and tracked by any professional who has regular contact with the family. These include:

  • criminal convictions;

  • involvement of child welfare agencies in the dispute;

  • several or frequent changes in lawyers;

  • the number of times a case goes to court;

  • the overall length of time it takes for the case to be settled; and

  • a large amount of collected affidavit material.

Some attempts have been made by researchers and clinicians to develop "typologies" of high, medium and low levels of conflict as a first step in streaming these families. The most common streaming is towards different types of parenting plans. These distinctions appear to have only limited application in the clinical practices of mental health professionals who conduct custody/access assessments. Most mental health professionals start from the assumption that families who require assessments (often court-ordered) are already in high conflict situations. The assessment process then makes a further distinction between high conflict and low conflict families. Recommendations for parenting plans, including ideas for using community resources to reduce levels of conflict, are then linked to the level of conflict identified in the assessment.

This research study concludes that a high or low conflict typology is more useful to practitioners than models that identify several levels of conflict. This simpler model provides easier links to specific types of parenting plans. Suggested models are shown below.

High Conflict Families, Characteristics and Suggested Parenting Plan

External Markers
  • criminal convictions
  • involvement of child welfare agencies in the dispute
  • several or frequent changes in lawyers
  • the number of times a case goes to court
  • the overall length of time it takes for the case to be settled
  • a large amount of collected affidavit material
  • a history of access denial
Key Elements of a Parenting Plan
  • minimal or no contact between parents
  • a great amount of detail with little flexibility left to parents
  • regular routines for children
  • a primary parent for decision-making
  • access may be limited or supervised
  • any communication between parents is through use of a "Communication Book"
  • use of a neutral place for exchange of children
Individual and Relationship Characteristics
  • a history of mental health difficulties, including depression, anger, withdrawal and uncommunicative behaviour
  • a history of violent and abusive behaviour
  • a tendency to vilify the other parent
  • an inability to separate the parents’ needs from the child’s needs
  • inflexible thinking about relationships and child development
  • a high degree of distrust
  • a tendency towards enmeshment rather than autonomy
  • a poor sense of boundaries
  • a high degree of competitiveness in the marriage and in the separation
  • the amount of verbal and physical aggression between the parents
  • a tendency to involve the children in the disputes
  • a pattern of alienating the child from the other parent
Referral to Community Resources
  • mandated services to monitor child safety
  • counselling and therapy to help with issues of anger and loss
  • addictions services
  • supervised access and exchange programs

Low Conflict Families, Characteristics and Suggested Parenting Plan

External Markers
  • ongoing disputes of items of daily routine
  • use of supportive family and friendship networks to limit conflict
  • use of lawyers as a last resort
  • few court appearances
  • no criminal activity linked to the custody dispute
  • no history of violence
Key Elements of a Parenting Plan
  • possibility of joint and shared decision-making;
  • possibility of equal time with both parents based on the child’s needs
  • parenting plans to provide guidelines, but allowing flexibility between parents;
  • focus on contentious issues, leaving most for the parents to negotiate.
Individual and Relationship Characteristics
  • ability to separate the child’s needs from parents’ needs
  • ability to validate the importance of the other parent
  • conflict is resolved with only occasional expressions of anger
  • negative emotions quickly brought under control
  • ability to not say certain things in anger
  • pattern of protecting the child from angry episodes
  • child functioning improves after a period of adjustment
  • both parents can tolerate differences
  • ability to cooperate on child-related issues
  • a resolution of personal issues
Referral to Community Resources
  • mediation services
  • individual and group support counselling for children and parents
  • parent education programs

It may be that, beyond the practical application for developing parenting plans, there is little usefulness in trying to define more accurate criteria for characterizing high conflict divorce situations. Probably the main difficulty with this term is the adjective "high", since it implies there is a clear distinction between various levels of conflict. Making such distinctions among individuals is one thing, but trying to generalize such distinctions and draw universal correlations between combinations of external and internal markers and the children’s emotional response to these markers demands very sophisticated research.

At this time, it is most useful to see divorce conflict as a continuum, an interplay between three sets of factors:

  • specific events and behaviours in a family leading up to and following the decision to separate;

  • the family and community resources available to help the parents and children adjust to the structural/environmental, emotional and relationship changes; and

  • the children’s internal responses to these challenges.

Recommendation 5

More research, including studies that investigate long-term outcomes, is needed to determine whether the use of criteria to identify high conflict divorce has any practical application for mental health and legal practitioners in terms of developing parenting plans and alternative services for dispute resolution.

Some studies refer to specific types of hostile behaviour between parents in high conflict. These behaviours include parental alienation, use of false allegations, and access and custody denial. Each of these requires more study to accurately define the behaviour as well as gain some understanding about how these particular behaviours affect children.

Recommendation 6

More research is required concerning certain elements of high conflict divorces, specifically parental alienation, use of false allegations, and access and custody denial, to determine whether legislative initiatives would be a useful response to these situations.

The effects on children of high conflict between parents

When looking at negative outcomes for children, a majority of studies identify high conflict between parents as having the most toxic effect on children. Only a few studies have examined the after-effects on children of high conflict families. These studies conclude that exposure to high conflict between divorcing parents results in children showing:

  • high levels of aggressive behaviour;

  • anti-social behaviour;

  • conduct disorders; and

  • anxiety.

They further conclude that:

  • open hostility for periods longer than one year are likely to cause children problems in the form of uncontrolled behaviour;

  • both girls and boys are equally effected by inter-parental hostility, but boys are more likely to show their upset in overt displays of problem behaviour;

  • the child’s age does not to seem to be a mitigating factor in reactions to inter-parental hostility (very young children and older adolescents all show upset in these situations); and

  • good relationships between one or both parents and the child mitigate but do not eliminate the negative effects of inter-parental hostility.

These studies indicate that children who live in high conflict situations are at an even greater risk of becoming maladjusted than children in lower conflict circumstances of divorce and separation.

Recommendation 7

As part of a public education program designed to raise awareness about the hazards of divorce for children, attention should focus on the specific hazards caused by high conflict situations.

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