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July 29, 2022 Feature

Kids, Stress, and High-Conflict Breakups

Arnold T. Shienvold

Much has been written about the negative impact of a high-conflict divorce on the adjustment of children. In fact, in 2011, I authored an article that directly addressed the types of behaviors and symptoms parents might expect to observe in their children when there was prolonged litigation, anger, and hostility being expressed and acted out in the family. SeeHigh-Conflict Divorce and Your Children’s Adjustment,” 34 Family Advocate, no. 1, Summer 2011, at 32–34. One of the early statements from that article stated, “Unfortunately, research informs us that parental separation and divorce are major stressors [emphasis added] in any child’s life.” The paragraph went on to describe how divorce causes changes inside and outside the family system to which a child is forced to adapt. Later in the article it states, “Another stressor [emphasis added] is a decline in the family’s economic status.” The article goes on to outline that the child may also experience a feeling of loss or fear of abandonment from one or both of their parents.

Whether the children are experiencing feelings of depression, lowered academic performance, acting-out behavior, disobedience, lowered self-esteem, loss of identity, or problems in their relationships with peers, parents, teachers, or friends, the underlying cause is the presence of some event(s) that the child perceives as stressful. Stress is a catalyst that can either help the child learn a sense of control and mastery over their world or push them off the path of normal, healthy adjustment into the years of psychological and, perhaps, physical problems.

What is stress, and how can it become such a destructive force in a child’s life? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines stress as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” In other words, stress is an adverse condition that can bring about a state of physical or psychological strain.

Physiological stress is brought about by physical forces. However, psychological stress is the result of an individual’s subjective interpretation of an event based on their unique expectations, beliefs, or assumptions. Because of the unique, subjective aspect of stress, the experience of psychological stress likely differs from child to child because each child’s history and experience with past stressors are unique. In turn, the interpretation, intensity, and consequences of the stress will likely be uniquely individual. It is for that reason that two children in the same family can have two very different reactions to the same stressors.

Some stressors are acute and present as time-limited events. For example, you are out for a hike and suddenly see a black bear on the path ahead of you. The presence of the bear serves as an acute stressor to which you must react. However, after your reaction, in this case, hopefully, you have run away, the stress is gone, and the event is over. Other sources of stress are more chronic in nature and less controllable. For those of you experiencing a divorce, or living in an abusive situation with domestic violence, the stress may be ever-present and may be unavoidable. You are left in a situation that causes chronic stress, or stress that is present over a long period of time.

What happens in the human body when one is confronted with a specific source of stress? At the moment you encounter the stressor, your brain goes into overdrive. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) located in the brain senses “danger” and signals the hypothalamus area of your brain to release a hormone (corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH). CRH then stimulates the anterior pituitary gland to release yet another hormone, the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn tells the adrenal gland to release cortisol. Cortisol is delivered throughout various systems of your body to help them prepare for either “fight or flight” in the situation. You will either run away from the bear (flight) or decide you have to “fight” the bear to escape.

The purpose of these reactions is to try to ensure physical “survival” in the immediate situation of having to deal with the stress. The body gets ready to either “fight” or take “flight” in response to the stressor. As the sense of danger becomes more distant, the body begins to relax and there is a corresponding physiological response that inhibits the further production of these powerful hormones. This system is hardwired into our brains, and the reactions are “automatic” and instinctual, once the brain interprets that a stressor is present.

If you have had this experience, you might remember how your body experienced the stress. You may have noticed that your breathing got more rapid and shorter, your heart began beating quickly, your blood pressure went up, your focus may have become more narrowed, you began to perspire, and your face may have felt hot. All of these responses are caused by the release of cortisol into the blood in order to help you physically survive.

When you perceived that the stress/danger had passed, you likely felt as if you had been in a fight. Your arms and legs might have felt heavy and fatigued, you might have felt generally tired, the perspiring probably stopped, and you may have felt some continued pounding in your head. Your body was returning to a “normal” state, and you needed time to rest. Your past experiences with dealing with stress probably helped you make sense of what was happening to you and helped you gain some control of yourself both physically and psychologically. Depending upon your past experiences with stress, you were able to decide whether the event you dealt with was a “mild” stress or a “severe” stressor. The ability to make that distinction should have helped you decide how you needed to respond both in the immediate situation and in the long run.

Try to imagine how much more difficult that process would have been for a young child. Being instinctual and automatic, the physiological aspects of the stress response would have occurred. However, the ability to use past experience to understand and cope with the stress would have been far more limited based on the specific age of the child. In order to do so effectively, the child would have needed the help of a trusted adult upon whom they could rely for support and security to manage the stress.

Experiencing stress is a normal and important part of life. In fact, a primary developmental task of all children is to learn how to cope with stress. From the time of birth, children are confronted with a variety of normal stressors. The infant must deal with feelings of tiredness or hunger. They have a developing brain that is trying simultaneously to grow and learn about how to deal with the world. Thus, the young child, through the impact of the attachment process, learns to recognize and interpret stress and how to regulate their own responses. This is done in an interactive way through the attachment process with a trusted, supportive, sensitive, and caring adult. The learning process of understanding and coping with stress continues throughout childhood with the focus of control moving from completely outside of the child’s body to the internal ability of the child.

There are different types of stress. Positive stress or eustress refers to the everyday stressors that are short-lived in our lives. The experience of the first day of school is an example of positive stress on the child. The developmental task for the child is to learn coping skills to control and gain mastery over those types of stressors. Adaptation in those circumstances leads to greater self-confidence. Most young children rely on their parents, or an adult they trust, to help teach them the skills and provide them the support they need to overcome their anxiety in those situations.

Tolerable stress is best understood as an adverse experience that is also relatively short-lived but may be experienced as more intense and anxiety-provoking. Examples of events that may produce more intense, but tolerable, stress are the death of a pet, a parent’s hospitalization, or witnessing a serious accident. In those situations, the stress can be tolerated as long as the child has adequate support to help them through the time of the stressful event and to frame the event as a situation that is tolerable. Thus, the supportive adult is helping to change the stress from something that is unmanageable to something that is tolerable. However, if the adult is unable to provide that type of guidance and support, the stress could become toxic.

Toxic stress is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that lasts for a prolonged period of time. The time over which the stress persists can vary from several weeks to many years. Toxic stress is intolerable for children because it causes such constant stimulation of the fight or flight centers in the brain as to create physiological and psychological fatigue and damage. The impact of the chronic stimulation on children is to damage the developing structure of various sections of the brain. Stress that results from such ACEs as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; maltreatment; neglect; or ongoing parental conflict are likely to have a toxic effect on the children.

All of this relates to high-conflict divorce because divorce is another ACE. As such it has the potential to create toxic stress for a child. Studies have shown that infant brain growth is negatively impacted by chronic stress. The brains of these children develop fewer neuronal connections than normally develop, which, in turn, has a negative effect on the child’s memory and learning ability. Older children also can experience permanent changes in their developing brain structure that impair their healthy cognitive development. One type of change that can occur is the shrinking of the learning and memory centers of the brain and the underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex, where executive functioning is centered.

Try to imagine the experience of a child caught in the middle of their parents’ high-conflict divorce as they try to cope with the daily verbal, emotional, and, perhaps, physical conflicts that exist between their warring parents. Picture their brains continuously pumping out stress hormones that are supposed to help them cope with the stress that exists around them without any finality. The stressors can be unrelenting, and the child’s physiological resources can become increasingly depleted and unavailable to them. If the child’s emotional centers of the brain become overactive, they are likely to be more prone to disorders that represent overstimulation such as attention deficit/hyperactivity, emotional dysregulation, conduct disorders, or generalized acting out. Studies have demonstrated that children in which inhibitory mechanisms are overdeveloped are more prone to inhibitory responses, such as depression, dissociation, thought disorders, and post-traumatic stress.

Children’s vulnerability is not limited to psychological impairments. They can experience significant physical problems. Studies related to the impact of ACEs on children show that they are more susceptible to infectious diseases and chronic medical problems secondary to a suppressed immune system. Some children show a higher risk of heart disease and a lower sense of overall well-being. They can experience work-related problems and premature death at a rate higher than their peers. It has been shown that the incidence of obesity, diabetes, and cancer goes up for a child living with toxic stress. As teenagers and adults, these children are more likely to experience substance abuse and dependence, smoking, teen pregnancy, suicide, and domestic violence.

It should come as no surprise that the symptoms shown by children who have been exposed to toxic stress are similar to those that have been observed in children experiencing a high-conflict divorce because the underlying physiological mechanisms are the same. Toxic stress has been associated with lowered executive functioning skills; lack of emotional regulation and self-reflection; poor impulse control; poor stress management ability; learning difficulties; memory problems; attentional difficulties; a lowered ability to trust adults; trouble in their interpersonal relationships; higher rates of depression, anxiety ,and behavior problems; and, as noted, poor health outcomes. These problems completely overlap with adjustment problems that have been identified in children of high-conflict families.

Depending upon age and developmental level, children from high-conflict families demonstrate maladaptive behaviors. Infants show increased irritability, changes in eating habits, an increase in crying and fussiness, and sleep-related problems. Some of these infants experience long-term problems in their attachment systems. Toddlers are dependent on their parents and rely on consistency and stability in their routines to feel secure. In the situation of high conflict, they experience increased anxiety, regressive behavior, increased tantrums, frustration, anger, and developmental delays.

Elementary school children are vulnerable to becoming increasingly manipulative in their interactions with others. There may be an increase in lying, depression, and social withdrawal. Additionally, they are likely to be distracted by their parents’ conflict, which means they are less attentive to their primary developmental tasks of gaining greater independence, increasing their social skills and network, and adjusting to the school environment. Toxic stress and the emotional unavailability of the parents contribute greatly to these problems.

Older elementary school children may cope with the stress around them by picking a side in their parents’ conflict. This style of coping can mark the beginning of early, developing parent-child contact problems and possible alienation. These children may show more severe acting-out behaviors and academic problems.

Superimposing the toxic stress of high conflict onto the many normal challenges and stresses of adolescence can create a living petri dish for the development of problems in teenagers. In the midst of high conflict, the adolescent’s focus on developing their own sense of identity, on resolving the conflict between a need for independence and ongoing dependence, on strengthening academic and vocational skills, and on improving peer relationships may be interrupted or diverted to and by the parental struggle. There is an increased likelihood of anti-authority behavior, anger, school truancy, drug and alcohol use, and sexual acting out. Problems in executive functioning for the teen may be a contributing factor in these problems.

The unfortunate reality is that at a time when children, regardless of where they are in their life cycle, need the full attention and physical and emotional support of their parents, their parents are likely to be less physically and emotionally available to them due to their struggles. Nonetheless, it remains the parents’ responsibility to mitigate their children’s exposure to toxic stress as much as possible. Understanding the physiological underpinnings of the stress response—and being aware of the danger to healthy development that chronic, toxic stress presents to their children—may serve as greater motivation for the parent to be more attentive to their child’s need for support.

In the conclusion of the 2011 article, I wrote,

Stress is a natural part of divorce for all members of the family. As a parent, you should expect that such stress would negatively affect your children in one way or another. Hopefully, your child will suffer only a temporary disruption in functioning as a result of your separation and divorce. Because most children return to relatively normal levels of adjustment and development, the odds are in your favor that your children will continue to thrive after the divorce. That is especially true if you and your ex-partner are able to make a healthy adjustment to the changes in your lives. However, if you have difficulty in doing that and high conflict continues, your child is likely to suffer as well. Finding ways to better manage your emotional reactions to your divorce and to deal with conflict with your ex-partner is essential for your child’s future wellbeing.

As a parent, you are responsible for providing the level of support necessary for your child to be able to manage the stress in their life. It is up to you to ensure that the stresses created by the divorce are tolerable and do not become chronic and toxic for the child. Toxic stress is extremely destructive and the primary instigating source of the extremely negative physical, emotional, cognitive, and social consequences of this adverse childhood experience. An antidote to those effects is managing your own stress and getting whatever help you need to be able to model good coping skills, provide love and support, and protect your child as best as possible from toxic stress.

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Arnold T. Shienvold is the managing partner of Riegler, Shienvold and Associates, a psychological practice located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Arnie’s expertise centers around his work in family forensics, as well as family mediation and individual counseling. Arnie is a member of the American Psychological Association, a fellow of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association, and former president of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, the Academy of Family Mediators, and the Association for Conflict Resolution.