The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review


This research project is part of the federal Minister of Justice’s response to the findings and recommendations of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access. The goal of this research was to identify the characteristics of those families that become embroiled in what are often referred to as high conflict divorces. It also explored the experience of various clinical and legal projects and professionals who attempt to stream high conflict families into other services designed to facilitate conflict resolution.

The interest in high conflict families comes from a growing awareness, often commented on in the hearings of the Special Joint Committee, that these families consume an excessive amount of their own emotional and financial resources in ongoing disputes over custody, access and child support. They also use an inordinate proportion of legal and judicial services as well as significant amounts of counselling and therapeutic services. This study was based on the premise that, if it is established from clinical and empirical studies that divorce generally results in significant negative outcomes for children, it should follow that high conflict divorce situations cause even more harm to children. Verifying this link, and establishing criteria for assessing levels of conflict, would be a step toward developing preventive and restorative service initiatives to limit and reduce the potential for harm to children caught in these difficult family circumstances.

The methodology for this study was a comprehensive review of the literature, followed by a series of interviews with researchers and mental health professionals who investigate and work with divorcing families and children. These mental health professionals included social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists who work as therapists and also conduct custody/access assessments to develop parenting plans for separated and divorced families.

The review of the literature included several types of studies:

How divorce affects children

Most empirical research, whether based on small sample groups or large sample longitudinal studies, concludes that divorce is a harmful experience for children. Not only do children go through a difficult period of adjustment when their parents separate, a significant number continue to struggle with the after-effects of their parents’ divorce for many years. Moreover, these after-effects often lead to difficulties in their adult lives.

To appreciate the dangers of divorce for children, it is necessary to identify the structural, relationship and emotional changes that occur in the family and see how these are connected to negative outcomes for children. The studies reviewed here identify the following changes that occur in a divorcing family. These are also referred to as risk factors for children:

In addition, there is some evidence that episodes of domestic violence will be more likely to occur around the time of separation and may increase in families having a dispute over custody and access.

These changes or risk factors present a unique set of challenges for children of divorce that children in intact families are usually able to avoid. The most significant of these challenges are:

How children deal with these challenges seems to depend on certain factors. Many studies show that the most important factor in children’s adjustment is the parents’ ability to adjust to the separation. These studies show that the parent who makes the initial decision to separate usually starts off with less anger, sadness and upset than the parent who feels left. This parent often feels deserted and powerless, and these feelings seem to result in a loss of parenting focus. These studies conclude that certain parenting tasks are necessary to help children make a positive adjustment to life in a separated family. These parenting tasks include:

Many parents become overwhelmed by the decision to separate and become preoccupied with their own needs for security, friendship and revenge. When this happens, children suffer.

Although some studies show that many children suffer no permanent damage as a result of their parents’ divorce, empirical research shows that the majority of children go through a very difficult period of transition and that a significant number carry the negative outcomes into their adult lives. More study is necessary to identify which risk factors are most toxic in terms of long-term effects, but existing research shows that significant numbers of children display the following areas of difficulty after their parents separate:

Many of these children carry a general sense of distrust about relationships throughout their lives, and long-term studies show these individuals lead more difficult lives in general than those who grew up in intact families.

Existing divorce education programs are aimed at parents who have already made the decision to separate. What is needed to help prevent an increasing number of Canadian children from having to deal with the proven difficulties related to separation and divorce is a program of national public education that would make all parents aware of the hazards of divorce for children.

Recommendation 1

Public education initiatives, similar to those that describe the hazards of smoking or driving under the influence of alcohol, are necessary to bring awareness of the harmful effects of divorce on children to a much wider audience. Increased awareness of the hazards that divorce poses for children would perhaps encourage parents to make more use of counselling and therapeutic services to prevent divorce.

A majority of studies conclude that maintaining a relationship with both parents following separation is an important factor in mitigating negative outcomes for children. However, studies also show that joint and shared parenting arrangements are often favoured by adults but not by children. A number of recent studies conclude that joint physical custody and equal access arrangements often result in increased conflict between parents, thus causing negative outcomes for children. These studies recommend more research into the long-term implications of joint custody arrangements.

Recommendation 2

Research, using longitudinal data, is needed to compare the long-term adjustment of children in joint physical custody arrangements to that of children in arrangements where their relationship with both parents is protected but the child spends most of his or her time at one residence.

Recommendation 3

Public education initiatives aimed at families that are separating are required to provide more information about various models of shared parenting beyond traditional ideas, i.e. either joint or sole custody.