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


This paper, based on a comprehensive review of the literature, plus a series of interviews with clinicians and researchers who work with divorced families, identifies a series of risk factors that contribute to negative outcomes for many children whose parents separate and divorce. These risk factors include structural/environmental factors, such as changes in neighbourhoods, residences and schools; relationship factors, such as loss of time with a parent or members of the extended family, changes in friendship networks and the introduction of new adult partners; and emotional factors, such as maladjustment to the separation by one or both parent’s decreased parenting ability of one or both parents and increased hostility between the parents. These all contribute to a loss of predictability and routine for children, two factors often connected to children’s mental health. Short-term and long-term studies of children in separated and divorced families show that these risk factors contribute to a series of negative outcomes for children, including:

One of the risk factors for children frequently identified in studies of divorce is increased or high conflict between parents. This factor was often mentioned in the hearings of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access, and the Committee recommended further study to determine whether it would be possible to establish criteria for the early identification and streaming of high conflict families into specialized services to improve outcomes for children.

This review summarizes the difficulties found in many other studies that try to clearly define high conflict divorces. By its very nature, divorce usually includes some degree of conflict between the parents, and research has been unable to reach any universal conclusions about how to distinguish between the normal level of conflict found in separation and divorce and the toxic levels referred to as "high conflict." Research also has not been able to shed light on the relative toxicity for children of different risk factors, of which parental conflict is only one.

Despite these difficulties, the research review does identify the behavioural, emotional and environmental factors most frequently connected with high conflict divorce. It also sets out a scheme for distinguishing between low and high conflict situations for the purpose of developing parenting plans for children. This scheme certainly requires more follow-up study with particular types of families to help determine the long-term effectiveness of such streaming in parenting assessments, however, it does provide a starting point for both practical and research applications.

Research on the effectiveness of adjunct services for divorced families, such as mediation, counselling and therapy, and education programs is still in a preliminary stage, thus the streaming of families at various levels of conflict toward different types of services has not yet been widely investigated. Two sets of research difficulties are identified in this study. Many of the studies that focus on a particular divorce service, such as mediation or divorce education, are based only on the experience of the recipients of that service. Most often there is no control group and so conclusions about the comparative effectiveness of such services is not possible. As well, studies about divorce services often use the term high conflict, but do not define it in terms of specific measurements of behaviour, time and intensity, so that no conclusions can be reached about the effectiveness of particular services for families who show certain levels of conflict about such issues as custody, access and support arrangements.

This paper concludes that until more sophisticated ways are found to determine precise measures of the conflict associated with divorce, it would be most useful to think of conflict as a continuum in which (1) the specific events and behaviours in a family leading up to and following the decision to separate, (2) the family and community resources available to help parents and children adjust to the structural/environmental, emotional, and relationship changes, and (3) the children’s internal responses to these challenges, are all included. Such a framework provides the basis for future research as well as preventative initiatives through public awareness campaigns which would help all parents become more aware of the hazards that divorce poses to a child’s mental health.