Children, teenagers and young adults can be caught in the crossfire of unhappy situations at home. For some young people, exposure to high conflict divorce, interpersonal violence and stressful home experiences can lead to complex mental health concerns and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), Developmental Trauma and a lifetime of increased risk of further trauma and physical illness.
Recent studies by Arizona State University have found that when children and teenagers are exposed to fighting, arguing or bitterness between their divorced or separated parents, they experience a higher fear of abandonment and rejection – which may lead to early traits of Complex Trauma and Borderline Personality Disorder.
Here we explore the relationship between conflict at home and later mental health concerns leading to Complex Trauma responses in children and teenagers.
“Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
What is High Conflict At Home?
The occasional disagreement is common in just about every family system in the world. Nearly all children and teenagers see their parents argue at some point. Families are real, and in reality, we do not always get along all of the time.
As children, and during the teenage years, we learn to deal with conflict and practise positive repair and resolution in our family environment. Repairing relationships and learning to disagree, even argue well, is a skill that all adolescents need. In families where children are seen and heard, disagreements are followed by a period where negotiation and problem-solving are modelled, practised and copied by children and teenagers. It is a great place to grow and learn communication and relationship skills for life.
Not many readers will be surprised to hear that parents in long-term and ongoing conflict really hurt kids. Frequent, volatile, unpredictable outbursts and arguments at home can negatively affect normal child development.
High conflict – including verbal insults, name-calling, shouting, erratic driving, walking away in public areas or leaving for days or weeks at a time – threatens the vision of ‘family’, the feeling of safety and the essence of protection for children and teenagers. This has been shown to be harmful in both development, relationships and lifelong mental health.
Parents in High Conflict Create Homes That Are War Zones
Conflict in the home does not always mean interpersonal violence. Frequent heated arguments, speaking badly of the other parent, discussing finance or infidelities, or allowing children to read communication designed for adults all create worry, fear, and sadness. These wounds can last a lifetime.
Families in high conflict situations can often find further difficulties arise during separation and divorce.
– 30% of children will witness violence at home –
Many readers will equate trauma, PTSD or C-PTSD with traumatic situations, such as war, famine and other life-threatening situations. However, for children and teenagers living in high conflict homes, the potential for suffering from long-term psychological effects stemming from conflicted and volatile situations is similar to children who have experienced natural disasters. In fact, for children who have suffered emotional or physical abuse or witnessed the emotional or physical abuse of a parent, carer or sibling, the effects of the trauma can be more severe and disabling.
Children From High Conflict Homes Face Greater Social Challenges
Studies have noted that children show a higher distress level in response to parents’ conflict from about six months old.
Children who have lived in high conflict with hostile interactions between parents are less able to solve problems, negotiate interpersonal relationships and have higher levels of social anxiety.
Children who have experienced hostility between parents are shown to have lower satisfaction levels in their own relationships from adolescence onwards, with some reporting negative views on family structures, marriage and relationships in general.
Teen Mental Health and Divorce
Separation and divorce bring about change within the family system. Most young people and most parents will manage the changes in the family in a relatively constructive manner. Yes, there is hurt, and yes, children and teenagers may wish this was not happening in their families. However, most will manage to navigate the changes with support, age-appropriate explanations and remain in loving relationships with both parents.
Some children may experience transitional problems following the reconfiguration of the family unit. Children and teens may be more prone than usual to worrying, oppositional behaviours, have difficulty in social relationships and may not be as settled at school. Some may have difficulties that meet the criteria for diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety.
Children and teenagers who have experienced chronic stress in the home have been shown to be more susceptible to mental health issues. Further information can be found via our blog The Effects of Divorce on Children.
What is Complex Trauma?
Complex Trauma sometimes referred to as C-PTSD, describes children’s exposure to traumatic events, often in early childhood. These events are usually multiple in nature, often invasive, interpersonal and far-reaching, and cause long-term effects throughout childhood, the teenage years and beyond.
Complex trauma can often take place in the family of origin and is usually severe and ongoing.
Children who have experienced complex trauma may have suffered from emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, abandonment, parental alienation, high conflict divorce, neglect and/or assault. As a result, they may be left feeling unsafe, lacking comfort or feeling unprotected.
Parentification, adultification and infantilisation are three types of corrupted roles within the unbalanced family system that can lead to triangulation and subsequent trauma responses.
Complex trauma can be further compounded if there is still contact with the person responsible for the trauma.
This can happen inside the family home or in the wider environment of the child. Traumatic events may involve parents or other caregivers.
Children who have experienced complex trauma develop ways of coping with big feelings, upheaval, mistrust and difficult emotions. Unfortunately, some of these coping strategies become maladaptive and cause difficulties during adolescence, early adulthood and beyond.
Complex trauma may be diagnosed in children, teenagers, young adults or in later life.
Symptoms of Complex Trauma in Teenagers and Children
- intense feelings of guilt and shame
- insomnia or sleeping deeper and longer than usual
- physical symptoms: migraines, dizziness, nausea, chest pains, stomach aches
- difficulty falling asleep
- withdrawal or isolating
- angry or aggressive outbursts
- changes in behaviour at home and/or school
- exaggerated startle response
- anxiety, fear and walking on eggshells
- silent, withdrawn, closed down communication
- self-harm and thoughts of suicide
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder
- intrusive thoughts
- obsessive behaviours
- eating less than usual, increased concerns with food/drink
- increased risk-taking behaviours
- substance use
- gaming or Internet addiction or use that is problematic
- high-risk sexual behaviours, including online sexual activity or in-person
- waking up exhausted, irritable or with low energy levels
- lower levels of self-care than usual
- signs of depression or low mood
- change in voice tone and pitch
- difficulty in forming trust in relationships.
This list indicates some of the symptoms experienced by children, teenagers and young adults who have experienced traumatic events. It is not exhaustive. Young people demonstrate many signs and symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD. Each young person should be reviewed by a child and adolescent trauma specialist, psychiatrist or trauma-trained mental health professional.
Fear of Abandonment and Borderline Personality Disorder
Children and teenagers who have witnessed regular heated family situations, or have been subject to unpleasant adult conflicts, often report a greater fear of abandonment and rejection than their peers. Excessive fear, related to abandonment, has been seen to be a precursor to severe mental health problems in later life.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a severe mental health condition that has a focus on the fear of abandonment and avoiding rejection at all costs. Interpersonal relationships are often incredibly intense and challenging to manage for young people diagnosed with BPD.
The signs and symptoms of Borderline PersonalityDisorderor Complex or Developmental Trauma have many similarities. An experienced trauma-focused mental health provider, trauma therapist or psychiatrist with specialist training in trauma treatment will be able to help young people process historical trauma as part of their treatment program.
Parents Involved in High Conflict Divorce
High conflict separations that lead to ongoing and protracted divorce proceedings are sometimes seen by Family Therapists and their colleagues in Family Law Teams.
Research has shown a link between parents who demonstrate Cluster B Personality Traits and High Conflict Divorce proceedings. Cluster B refers to a group of Personality Disorders including:
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Antisocial Personality Disorder
- Histrionic Personality Disorder.
High conflict personalities are often seen to have characteristics and traits that worsen during separation and divorce. Those who demonstrate traits and behaviours that are grouped under Cluster B are more likely to present with challenging behaviours as relationships end and may include abusive behaviours, falsifying allegations, extensive blaming of others, escalating emotions, self-harm or suicidal gestures.
Children and teenagers who are continually exposed to dysregulation in their parents or primary carers may present with challenging behaviours at home and school. They may also feel that they have to align with the thoughts or beliefs of one or another parent.
Parental Alienation or Parental Estrangement. Is There a Difference?
Estrangement occurs when children or teenagers have a break in contact following behaviours in the parent-child relationship that have been harmful or hurtful to the child. This may include witnessing or being subject to prolonged exposure to:
- mental health crisis
- drug and alcohol use
- domestic violence
- verbal or physical abuse
- emotional unavailability
- sexually inappropriate conduct
- sexual abuse
- financial harm.
The break-in contact is seen as ‘justifiable’ based upon the actions of the estranged parent. Estrangement is not a diagnosable mental health condition, although it is of interest to clinicians working with the child or the family system.
– Parental alienation may be present in up to 15% of divorce cases. –
Parental alienation refers to a break in contact or rejection relationship of a parent that is ‘unjustifiable’. Allegations may be made against the targeted parent that is untrue or designed to cause a fracture in the parent-child bond. Parental alienation is particularly prevalent in high conflict divorce cases.
Alienation causes harm to both children and their parents. It has been described as the psychological manipulation of children by one parent in an attempt to distance and break the relationship with the other parent.
Alienation affects both parents equally, both the favoured and the rejected parent. There is some correlation between the alienating parent and primary care role.
A presenting factor for clinicians involved with the child and family is the lack of ambivalence shown by the child or teen in cases of parental alienation. The child ceases to have or report mixed feelings or memories of the rejected parent, instead of adopting a black and white viewpoint where the rejected parent is ‘all bad’. This may extend to the alienated parent’s friends, family and even pets, with grandparents, cousins and others also being alienated.
Parental alienation can range from mild to severe, with behaviours ranging from passive-aggressive comments and involvement in parental arguments to complete rejection of the absent parent.
Help in High Conflict Divorce for Children and Teenagers
The Wave Parenting Series is designed to help families and young people struggling with the impact of high conflict divorce or high conflict relationships at home.
Young people will benefit from the support of the extended family and a therapist during separation or divorce. Having a space to be seen and heard and process the big feelings that come with family breakdowns is essential for all young people.
Some young people will benefit from additional support during times of conflict, particularly if they have experienced prior mental health challenges or behavioural health concerns. School counsellors and family therapists can be excellent resources. Some children may benefit from residential treatment options during this period. Children and teenagers often benefit from a space to process that is away from home conflicts. The Wave offers a therapeutic boarding option for children and teens who have been affected by high conflict family situations.
For families, parents and young people who would benefit from further advice on divorce, separation or family matters, The Wave Clinic recommends The Family Team at Mishcon De Reya, in London and Singapore. Their Family Law Team is able to provide exemplary advice and discretion in matters relating to High Conflict Divorce, Parental Alienation and other issues relating to Children and Family law.
Mishcon De Reya can be contacted by telephone on: +44 20 3321 7000
Or via their website: https://www.mishcon.com/contact/
The Wave is able to offer assistance to families and family offices and provide therapeutic care for children and their families during times of increased stress.
The Wave Family Team contains licensed Family Psychotherapists with specialist training in the evaluation of child custody matters, safeguarding of children and complex and developmental trauma. The Wave Programs are designed for teenagers, young adults and their families. The Wave is a specialist provider of treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder, Eating Disorders, Trauma and Addiction.
Mahisha Naidu, Fiona Yassin, Dr Rasyid & The Wave Family Therapy Team can be contacted on: +60327271799 or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
In London, Caroline Curtis Dolby at Belgravia Therapy, Consultant Psychotherapist, can be contacted at email@example.com
The Wave is a Member of The Association of Child Protection Professionals.
High-Conflict Parenting Post Separation: The Making and Breaking of Family Ties. Elia Asen and Emma Morris. (2020) Routledge.
High Conflict. Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Amanda Ripley. (2021) Simon & Schuster
Longitudinal Effects of PostDivorce Interparental Conflict on Children’s Mental Health Problems Through Fear of Abandonment: Does Parenting Quality Play a Buffering Role? Child Development. (Jan 2021) Karey L O’Hara, C Aubrey Rhodes, Sharlene A Wolchik.
Parental Alienation and the Dynamics of the Enmeshed Parent-Child Dyad: Adultification, Parentification and Infantilization. Family Court Review. (2011) Benjamin D Garber.