Kids who witness fighting between divorced parents more likely to develop mental health problems

TEMPE, Ariz. — Children are more likely to suffer mental health problems if they witness their divorced or separated parents arguing, warns a recent study. Conflict between recently separated parents can cause children to experience fear of abandonment, leading to such mental health issues further down the line, researchers say.

Approximately 747,000 couples decided to part ways in 2019, per data from the National Center for Health Statistics. While some divorces are amicable, others can become toxic, especially if one party harbors resentment toward the other. Children caught in the crossfire are mentally vulnerable, especially if they have a close relationship with their fathers, the research suggests.

“Conflict is a salient stressor for kids, and the link between exposure to inter-parental conflict and mental health problems in children is well established across all family types, married, cohabitating, separated, and divorced. Conflict between divorced or separated parents predicted children experiencing fear that they would be abandoned by one or both parents. This feeling was associated with future mental health problems, especially for those who had strong relationships with their fathers,” says study author Dr. Karey O’Hara of Arizona State University, in a statement.

The researchers surveyed 559 children aged nine to 18 about their exposure to parental conflict. They were asked whether their parents fought in front of them, spoke poorly of the other parent, or asked them to carry messages.

Kids who witnessed their parents fighting were more worried about being abandoned by one or both parents, the researchers found. This feeling did not go away and persisted for three months after the children were first surveyed. They were also more likely to develop mental health problems after ten months, the researchers found.

Previous studies have found kids see their parents fighting as a threat, often wondering whether they are going to split up. “When parents who are married or cohabitating engage in conflict, the child might worry about their parents separating. But children whose parents are divorced or separated have already seen the dissolution of their family. The idea that they might be abandoned might be unlikely, but it is not illogical from their perspective,” says Dr. O’Hara.

Previous studies have also found that having a strong relationship with a parent buffers the child from stress. So the researchers expected kids who were close to their mother or father to fare better than others. But this was not the case.

“A strong father-child relationship came at a cost when inter-parental conflict was high. Having a high-quality parenting relationship is protective, but it is possible that quality parenting alone is not enough in the context of high levels of inter-parental conflict between divorced parents,” adds Dr. O’Hara.

The findings are published in the journal Child Development.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.