Co-Parenting Conflict and Children: What the Research Reveals*

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As a family law attorney and a Guardian ad Litem, I have witnessed parents so firmly entrenched in their anger or hurt with each other that, often, they fail to recognize how their conflict affects the children.  These parents may be absolutely focused on the resentment and unresolved issues surrounding the breakdown of their relationship, that it becomes difficult to see beyond their own perspective.  Consumed by their own emotional upheaval, parents cannot comprehend the significant impact that the research shows their high-conflict co-parenting can have on their children.


Children are aware of their parents’ conflict. Parents may believe that they are successful in keeping the conflict between them hidden from their children.  However, children are very perceptive to the feelings of tension and unspoken signals of anger.  Research has also shown that while in the womb, children are able to distinguish conflict in tones of voices.

Bottom-line: You are not hiding anything from the kids.

Children do not become acclimated to their parents’ conflict. According to many research findings, children do not one day become “used to” the conflict occurring between their parents.  In fact, when children are subjected to continued conflict between their parents, the children’s negative responses become increasingly intensified.

Bottom-line: Your conflict never becomes “normal” to your children.

Parents’ conflict has consequences on children at every developmental stage. Children between the ages of 2 years-old to teenagers will both externalize and internalize the conflict. Thus, they will direct their behavior outward (i.e., by acting out, being aggressive, etc.).  They will also direct their behavior inward (e., by withdrawing, expressing sadness, etc.).  Children will commonly blame themselves for the conflict that is happening between their parents.  Further, no matter the age of the children, when the conflict between their parents increased, children gauged the possibility of harm also increasing.

Bottom-line: Your conflict is going to affect your children regardless of their age.

What matters is how parents manage conflict – not that conflict simply exists between parents. Children do not suffer negative consequences from the fact that their parents have conflict.  The important part of conflict occurring between parents is how the parents handle the actual conflict. When conflicts involve peaceful and constructive discussions, encouragement, and care, children have higher levels of positive emotions.  In contrast, when conflicts involved threats, hostility (verbal and non-verbal), insults, defensiveness, and withdrawal, children have higher levels of negative emotions.  A very important factor was whether the parents resolved the conflicts. Children are affected positively when parents reach a resolution to their conflicts.  In fact, if there was any movement toward resolving the conflict, children benefited positively.

Bottom-line: Do not be a jerk when arguing with the other parent; instead, reach resolutions through civil, constructive, and caring discussions.   



Hostile and high-conflict co-parenting:

  1. Leads to a multitude of behavioral problems in children, which are internalized and externalized
  2. Can result in behavioral, emotional, and social issues
  3. Weakens actual parenting
  4. Overall, harms children’s well-being




  1. Type of conflict
  2. Amount of child’s exposure to the conflict
  3. Whether the child is the focus of the conflict
  4. Whether the child witnesses the conflict
  5. Whether the conflict is high-conflict

The scenario of warring parents so rooted in their dislike for each other after the breakdown of their relationship is a cliché in family law. This situation is bad enough; however, it becomes even more unfortunate when they fail to recognize that their children have become the collateral damage in their war. These parents may not intend to harm their children; yet, because they are consumed by the emotions involved in the conflict with the other parent, they cannot fully understand what the research has made overwhelmingly clear: High-conflict between parents leads to a negative effect on children’s overall well-being and development.

The above may seem obvious, but learning how conflict and divorce affects children when they discuss it themselves really drives the point home. “Split: The EARLY Years” (2013) shows the effect of divorce on children as told by the children when the divorce was relatively new, and “Split Up: The TEEN Years (2023), follows up with these children 10 years later.  These films should be compulsory viewing for parents locked in the cycle of high-conflict co-parenting.  After watching these heart rendering films, parents would hopefully prioritize their children’s needs and work to foster a healthier environment for their children and each other.  The Artemis Approach keeps the best interests of children at the forefront of any family law matter.  If you would like to discuss how we can assist you in your family law matter, please schedule a consultation today.


*Research summarized and information provided by Marsha Kline Pruett, PhD, MSL, ABPP in her presentation, “Too Much Conflict, Not Enough Trust and Respect”

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