Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
January 19, 2021
2 min read

Conflict between divorced, separated parents linked to children's mental health

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
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Conflict between divorced or separated parents appeared linked to increased risk for children developing mental health problems, according to study results published in Child Development.

Karey L. O'Hara

“Multiple studies across many years have demonstrated that exposure to conflict between parents is a risk factor for children’s mental health,” Karey L. O’Hara, PhD, assistant research professor at Arizona State University, told Healio Psychiatry. “We also have a lot of evidence that how children perceive the conflict (ie, thoughts and feelings related to the conflict) is one of the reasons for this association between parent conflict and mental health. Less is known about how children’s thoughts and feelings (in this case, fears about being abandoned by one or both parents) might explain the association between parent conflict and mental health problems for children in separated/divorced families.”

O’Hara and colleagues aimed to assess whether parental conflict after divorce or separation predicted children’s fear of abandonment 3 months later, if those fears predicted mental health problems 11 months later and whether parent-child relationship quality moderated the link between interparental conflict and fear of abandonment. The investigators surveyed families who participated in the New Beginnings Program, a parenting-after-divorce program conducted in the Southwestern United States. They received responses from 559 children aged 9 to 18 years about their exposure to conflict, with question topics including whether their parents fought in front of them, spoke poorly of the other parent or asked children to carry messages.

Results of mediations analyses showed that pretest interparental conflict predicted fear of abandonment 3 months later, as well as child- and teacher-reported mental health problems 10 months later. The researchers did not observe the hypothesized protective effect of high-quality parent-child relationships. Interparental conflict predicted fear of abandonment among all children, aside from those with low- and moderate-quality father-child relationships, for whom it was not significantly linked to fear of abandonment.

“This study gives us important directions to go in terms of helping children and reducing their risk for mental health problems,” O’Hara said. “First, we can make sure that programs intended to help children after divorce help them cope with any fears of abandonment they may have. Second, we can improve parenting programs so that they work to help parents reduce the conflict, or at least their children’s exposure to the conflict. We can also help parents become more aware of the importance of letting their children know that they will continue to be taken care of, despite all the changes happening in the family after a separation or divorce.”