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Conflict between divorced parents can worsen kids' mental health, study finds

Experts worry about how these kinds of arguments affect kids’ stress levels

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Divorce can be a major source of physical and mental stress for consumers, and a new study has explored how kids of divorced parents are affected by this change in the family dynamic. 

According to researchers from Arizona State University, kids are more likely to struggle with mental health concerns when their divorced or separated parents are frequently arguing. 

“Conflict is a salient stressor for kids, and the link between exposure to interparental conflict and mental health problems in children is well established across all family types -- married, cohabitating, separated, and divorced,” said researcher Karey O’Hara. 

“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.”

Kids fear being abandoned

The researchers had families enrolled in the New Beginnings Program -- an initiative that helps families transition following a divorce or separation -- participate in the study. Nearly 560 kids between the ages of nine and 18 were surveyed about their experiences with parental conflict, stress levels, and overall well-being. 

The more that separated or divorced parents fought, the more stressed and anxious the kids felt. The researchers learned that kids who experienced the highest levels of parental conflict feared being abandoned by their parents. This also had long-term consequences, as the study revealed that kids who worried about abandonment were also more likely to struggle with mental health nearly a year down the road. 

“When parents who are married or cohabitating engage in conflict, the child might worry about their parents separating,” said O’Hara. “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.” 

Parental relationships don’t play a role

The researchers also learned that this correlation between parental conflict and kids’ mental health struggles was consistent regardless of the kind of relationship parents had with their kids. Several recent studies have indicated that parents serve an important role in managing stress for their kids; however, exposure to this kind of persistent arguing was enough to be detrimental to kids’ mental wellness despite any closeness with parents. 

“Having a high-quality parental relationship is protective, but it is possible that quality parenting alone is not enough in the context of high levels of interparental conflict between divorced parents,” O’Hara said. 

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