Parent Conflict After Separation: Taking a Closer Look
by Joan B. Kelly, Ph.D.
This article was originally published in the Florida AFCC Newsletter: Enews, Vol 1, 1, 1-3. Copyright 2013 Joan B. Kelly, Ph.D.
High conflict is often described as the most damaging factor in the post-separation adjustment of children and adolescents. High conflict that continues in the years after separation is indeed a major risk factor for children’s longer-term well-being. However, more recent research has demonstrated that it is only one of several important factors creating risk and potential detriment. The quality of parenting after separation and divorce, for example, is now recognized as equally important, if not more so, because competent and warm parenting acts as a protective barrier against the effects of high conflict.
Parent conflict has typically been treated in the family law field in a simplistic manner and as a unitary phenomenon. We tell parents conflict is bad for children, and tell them to stop it, but our exhortations are usually not specific enough to be effective in motivating behavioral change. Conflict is a complex and multi-dimensional set of behaviors and interactions that is best understood when it is scrutinized and differentiated by mediators, evaluators, family lawyers, therapists, judges, and educators providing post-separation programs. This then provides a more sophisticated conflict framework for counseling and educating clients, mediating, decision-making, and for understanding the child’s experience.
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Joan B. Kelly, Ph.D. is a clinical child psychologist. For 45 years, her research, practice, teaching and publications have focused on research in children’s adjustment to divorce, custody and access issues, divorce and custody mediation, applications of child development research to custody and parenting plans, and Parenting Coordination. She has published more than 130 articles and chapters, including a classic book, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce (Basic Books, 1980).
Dr. Kelly was Founder and Executive Director of the Northern California Mediation Center for 20 years, and a mediator, forensic expert, custody evaluator, therapist, consultant, and Parenting Coordinator in high conflict custody cases. She was a founding Board member and President of the Board of Directors of the Academy of Family Mediators, and received the Distinguished Mediator Award from AFM, the Distinguished Research Award and the Meyer Elkin Award from the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. She recently retired.
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