Implications of Parental Conflict

Parental conflict negatively affects children before, during, and after divorce proceedings.  When parents use the court system, parental conflict and its effects can quickly become exacerbated.  The damage increases with heightened intensity and proximity of the conflict to the child.  Thus, a child's well-being may be easily put in jeopardy if they witness parental conflict in or out of the courtroom. Children can further become emotionally and psychologically damaged, putting them at risk for developmental or behavioral problems.  It is therefore crucial that parents put the "best interests" of their children ahead of any personal disputes.

The Optimal Environment

It is well established that children develop and perform best when their basic needs are met in a loving, safe, stable environment.  The optimal environment is one in which the children are cared for by two loving parents who work together in the shared, best interests of their children.  When this equilibrium is disrupted by parental conflict it becomes distressing for children.  Although some authorities suggest it is most disruptive for children who are emotionally insecure and temperamentally more emotional, parental conflict and divorce are very serious and pervasive factors that can negatively affect any child - whether a preschooler or college graduate.  To relieve some of this stress, it is necessary to maintain a strong psychological relationship and healthy physical relationship with children across all age groups.  It is important that children remain securely attached to their parents in order to develop most optimally and receive the appropriate attention, affection, and discipline from both parents.  Thus, parental conflict needs to be kept to a minimum, especially in front of children.

Cooperation is the Best for Children

Further, children adjust to divorce and separation most easily if parents cooperate with one another in person and refrain from denouncing the other parent in their absence.  Divorce mediation is a common method used to help parents work together in divorce proceedings and is often exercised as a positive alternative to the court system.  In mediation, parents work together to actively keep their children's needs and well-being as the focal point.  Moreover, mediation provides a forum for open communication and free expression of feelings to confront differing perspectives, attitudes and understandings.  Most mediators are skilled in a legal or behavioral science background and able to expertly facilitate discourse that helps create resolutions in the best interest of their children.

Parental Education: Versatile, Useful

Parental education is another important method to help parents focus on the "best interests" of their children. It provides a versatile, culturally sensitive and structured format, designed to communicate and familiarize parents about the many forms of positive and negative influences on children, from the subtle shaping of our culture through the social forces of family, friends, and peers, to the persuasive attempts from judicial systems and educational programming.  It details the coping impacts of divorce upon children, about the consequences of choices parents make, and the ways in which parents relate to their children and each other.  Within this framework, relational concepts are tied together and brought to the level of the real world to help parents reason through situations; extract the relevant from the redundant; and create new, positive solutions to assist their children with the psychological tasks of divorce.

Joint Custody Works Best With Cooperation

Today, parental conflict is one of the most critical issues in legal proceedings and directly affects not only the development of children, but also the outcome of court interventions regarding custody and access (visitation).  Joint custody, where parents equally share custody of their children, operates most effectively when parents are cooperative with each other and the court.  If joint custody is not a practical option, than shared parenting is a way to encourage cooperation.  That is to say, the state holds out a standard or expectation (which is often in the form of a written voluntary agreement) of supportive parenting roles, responsibilities, and access on behalf of the "best interests" of their children.

Other factors, such as parenting responsiveness, child safety, age, special needs, and the relationship of the children will also weigh into the decision which parent will assure the children's contact with the other parent.  These and other considerations may also determine which parent receives custody if so ordered, and what access rights may be granted to the non-custodial parent, and other extended family members, including grandparents.

Imperative That Parents Work Together

While the breakup of a relationship is usually very distressing, and can create many negative emotions and self-defeating reactions for both parents; most are often short-lived as life moves on and new adult bonds are formed.  However, extreme and/or continuous parental conflict may affect not only immediate behaviors of children as they work to confront traumatic family changes, but may also significantly contribute to the development of dangerous at-risk behaviors as children struggle to reconcile feelings and choices between a loved mother and father embroiled in a parental dispute.  It is imperative therefore, that parents consciously work together in order to achieve any result truly in the "best interest" of their children.

--Contributed in part by Ms. Ashley Moore, UMCP Writing Consultant

The "Best" Parent