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


When looking at negative outcomes for children, a majority of studies identify high conflict between parents as a definite risk factor for children. However, trying to identify what this term means is difficult. Is high conflict a behaviour shown by some families but not others? Is it a psychological characteristic that some people have a tendency toward in certain circumstances? Is it an emotional experience obvious only to the participants and intimate observers? Can high conflict be seen and measured by outside observers? Is the problem with high conflict the behaviour itself or the reaction of children to what they observe? Are all children equally affected, or do different children have a lower or higher tolerance for such conflict?

The children who gave video-taped or private testimony to the Special Joint Committee described conflict in behavioural terms, such as:

These children described their own emotions of fear, sadness, powerlessness and a sense of divided loyalty in these situations.

Parents also described high conflict situations in behavioural terms to the Special Joint Committee. These situations included:

These parents described their own resulting emotions of fear, anger, upset and powerlessness.

Mental health professionals often describe high conflict in dynamic terms, such as anger and powerlessness, or in behavioural terms, such as domestic violence and physical, emotional and verbal abuse. Legal and judicial professionals often describe high conflict in episodic terms of court time and repeated litigation. The measures differ and are unclear, but parents and professionals agree that these disputes are expensive for the parents and use extraordinary amounts of legal, judicial and clinical resources.

Since there are no clear criteria available to differentiate between high conflict families and those struggling with the expected "normal" level of upset and conflict that follows most divorces, it is not possible to determine the exact proportion of high conflict situations in all divorces in Canada. Witnesses before the Special Joint Committee from the Department of Justice Canada estimated that 5 to 10 percent of divorces are "problematic." Other witnesses (e.g., Bala and Richardson) estimated the number of divorces involving repeated litigation over issues of custody, access and support to be between 10 and 15 percent. Some lawyers and representatives of a number of fathers’ rights groups warned that using cases of litigation over custody and access as a measure was inaccurate, since many fathers do not pursue this because they believe there is a gender bias in the courts that awards the majority of orders for custody and access in favour of mothers.

Given this debate on how to define high conflict, even if the only measurable criterion is repeated litigation over custody, access and support issues, it is impossible to state how many families and children actually fall into this category of divorce situations.

Research into this category of divorce takes three forms:

Studies of high conflict divorce and its effect on children

Raschke and Raschke (1979) compared how 289 grade school children from intact, single-parent and divorced families (when both parents were still involved in the child’s life) dealt with various forms of conflict and how this conflict affected their development of self-concept. This study concluded that:

Emery (1982) conducted an extensive review of research to try to determine whether children from divorced families are affected differently than children from intact families by the presence of inter-parental hostility. He found first that it was difficult to determine external criteria for the concept of hostility and discord since each parent and outside observers, such as therapists and teachers, often rated this factor differently. He also found that studies based on clinical sample groups showed wide discrepancy from random sample groups when it came to reporting on family conflict and assumed this was because some type of pre-selection had already taken place in the clinical samples. In other words, clinical sample groups had a heightened awareness of conflict as a result of their previous contact in the clinic.

Emery states that it is very difficult to construct a definition of family hostility, but that three factors or criteria seem prevalent in other studies:

Using these three factors, Emery found that open conflict seemed to more negatively affect children than avoidance and apathy, and that the duration of the conflict was more significant than the content of the argument. His study concludes that open hostility over time, in both divorced and married families, causes more harm to children than does indirect hostility or the subject of the conflict.

The problems shown by children in these families included:

Emery concludes that:

In a later study of 40 separated families, Shaw and Emery (1987) compared the effects on children of various types of inter-parental conflict after divorce. They discovered that the higher the rate of externalized hostility between parents witnessed by children, the higher the level of distress for children. When compared with other family stresses, parental conflict appeared to have the most negative effect on children, and open conflict did more harm than internalized feelings of anger.

Camera and Resnick (1989) studied how various forms of conflict and cooperation after divorce affect children. Their study of 82 divorced families concluded that inter-parental hostility and conflict, when exhibited through verbally aggressive and physically abusive behaviour, had extremely negative results for children, who in turn often showed aggressive and abusive behaviour in their own social lives.

Using a Divorce Conflict Scale to measure inter-parental hostility and a Revised Behaviour Problem Checklist to measure children’s adjustment, Long et al. (1988) concluded that inter-parental conflict over time has a negative effect on boy’s academic achievement and social behaviour. This research found that the higher the level of overt inter-parental conflict, the higher the level of aggressive behaviour by the boys.

Nelson (1989) studied a group of 121 families for three years after their divorces to look at the relationship between joint and sole custody arrangements and the levels of hostility, conflict and cooperation. She concluded that:

Criteria for high conflict included:

Mathis (1998) investigated why certain families seem to fail in divorce mediation and concluded that failure was about 75 percent higher in situations when one or both parents remained "undifferentiated" from the other and each still thought of themselves as "we" rather than "you and I." These parents often had failed to become autonomous after the divorce and had poor boundaries in relation to the other parent; in other words, these parents often could not accept the dissolution of the marriage and still wanted active involvement with the other parent. The more differentiated parent, the one who had been able to establish a self-sufficient life after divorce, often resented the sense of intrusion by the other parent and became less cooperative and more hostile. Mathis concludes that a measurement of differentiation at the point of mediation would be a useful tool for dispute resolution.

One of Wallerstein’s colleagues, Janet Johnston, has conducted several research studies of high conflict divorce. Johnston, Gonzalez and Campbell (1987) traced the connection between levels of post-divorce conflict and psychological and behavioural disturbances in 56 children from age 4 to 12. The study used three criteria to identify conflict:

Children’s involvement was measured in terms of passive involvement (being present when the arguments or violent episodes took place) and active involvement (being asked or encouraged to pass abusive messages back and forth between parents).

The study concluded that high levels of hostility between parents resulted, at the early stages, in high levels of depression, withdrawal, somatic complaints and aggressive behaviour in their children. Longer periods of inter-parental hostility became accurate predictors of long-term adjustment difficulties for children.

Johnston, Kline and Tschann (1989) studied 100 families selected on the basis of entrenched disputes over custody and access over four years to investigate the effects on children. These families had been unable to resolve their differences about custody and access through attorney negotiations and the brief mediation service mandated by the California courts. The study concluded that while the actual custody arrangement had little effect on children’s adjustment to divorce, children in joint physical custody arrangements were more likely to be exposed to inter-parental conflict and, therefore, more likely to show negative outcomes as a result of this exposure. These children showed:

This study also focussed on the content of the disputes and discovered that:

The study concludes that legislative initiatives towards presumptions of joint custody need to take into account research on how such presumptions affect children.