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High-conflict parental divorce: children’s experiences


Background. This research investigates how children and adolescents in Norway experience high-conflict parental divorce, after the court had made a decision about daily care. Several international studies in the United States and Scandinavia have focused on divorce. There is strong consensus in the research literature that children whose parents have divorced are at increased risk of displaying a variety of problems compared to children living in continuously intact families. The elevated risks cover a broad range of problems, including externalizing, internalizing, social and academic problems. Moreover, the risks do not seem to be confined to childhood but tend to persist into young adulthood and adulthood as well.
A fairly common view holds that children's risks of negative outcomes associated with family dissolution are generally small in Scandinavia, and even smaller than what is usually found in the United States. This view is often based on three arguments: In Scandinavia there are 1.advanced welfare systems, 2.high rates of divorce, repartnering, cohabitation and single mothers, and 3.relatively liberal attitudes toward divorce. Still there seems to be an agreement that the risk-factors for children are the same. One of the risk-factors is conflict between their parents.

Research question. Divorcing parents in Norway, who can not make an agreement about daily care for their children up to 18 years, can bring their conflict to the court. In this study we wanted to examine children's experiences in their family in the time before, around and after the court-ordered physical custody. How did they perceive and interpret the conflict between their mother and father, and how did they react to it.

Method. Since our goal was focussing children's own experiences, we collected our data by interviewing 18 children aged 11 to 19 years. By this age children are old enough for reasoning and making abstractions. In the selection we had nine girls and nine boys. We also interviewed their parents, seven mothers and five fathers, who by court got daily custody. The adult interviews should support the children-interviews by validating the family's history. The interviews took place from half year up to eight years after the latest court-decision. The families were recruited by lawyers proceeding divorce-cases. Children and parents were alone during the interviews. For several children it was a difficult situation talking about their experiences. Therefore, some of the interviews showed signs of therapeutic approach as well as scientific approach.
The analyses process followed Giorgi's pattern for analysing qualitative data. The theoretical perspective was mainly based on Ben-Ze'ev's "The Subtlety of Emotions" (2000).

Findings. Four emotions characterized most of the children short time and several years after court-ordered divorce: aggression, anxiety, depression and shame. The aggression against one of the children's parents was a negative evaluation of the person's actions. Some of the children were so angry at one of their parents that it can be characterized as hate or disgust: they had a more fundamentally negative attitude to the adult, either global or more directed to possess fundamentally unattractive traits. Some of them had a stronger anger against the recorder at the court. They felt that the recorder did not trust their story and therefore forced them to stay together with their unwanted parent. As a 14 old girl said: A recorder who never met us, never talked to us, he just listened to our parents. He distrusted the psychologists. It is very, very unfair.
Anxiety and fear were focused on situations that threatened their survival, such as fights between mother and father, blocked up by one of them, darkness and nightmare about their situations. As a 12 years old girl said: We were ready to go to daddy, but he did not come. Then he called from the police station and told me that if he did not could have us children for the whole weekend, the police should come and take us. I was so afraid!
Fear implies hope and anticipates an event to come. For some children believe of hope was absent. Their emotions responded to events that had taken place in their family, emotions of sadness or depression. In many ways these children had experiences that expressed the irrevocable loss of persons very close and of great value to them. Grief is the most profound type of sadness. When we asked a 12 years old boy how he felt now, he said: It is nearly like before. Except that the time after the court decision has sadden me. Especially when I talk about the dissolution with mammy or daddy. Just like a get a nugget in my throat. Then I begin to cry.
For some children the everyday life was marked by emotions of guilt or shame. They felt shame that they had done to little to prevent the conflict between their parents, or consequences of the conflict. For instance, when one of the parents became ill, their children felt shame for that. As a 17 years old boy said: I can remember the time when mammy get ill. That was very hard for my brother and me. We were having a meal with her, than she ran out throwing up the food. My brother stayed in mother's bed. He showed that he cared about her. I did not show that at all. For other children they felt guilty because they had done something wrong, for instance that they as brother and sister had too much fight in their home.

Implications. This study indicates that negative emotions characterize children for years after parental conflict divorce. The conflict between parents has priority. The court-decision does not make any change in the situation for children. They experienced that their opinion were unimportant.

Key references
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The Subtlety of Emotions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT press.
Emery, R.E. (1999). Postdivorce family life for children: An overview of research and some implications for policy. In R.A. Thompson & P.R. Amato (Eds.), The postdivorce family. Children, parenting and society. London: Sage Publication.
Moxnes, K., Haugen G.M.D. & Holter T. (1999). Skilsmissens virkning på barn. Foreldres oppfatning av skilsmissens konsekvenser for deres barn. Trondheim: Allforsk.

Contacts: Per Arne Rød, Bergen University College, Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, Centre for Evidence Based Practice, Haugev. 28, N-5020 Bergen, Norway, E-mail: Per.rod@hib.no, Phone +4755587806.

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