Parental co-operation crucial for children of divorce

October 27, 1999

Children can develop long-term social and emotional problems if separating parents don't work together to put their kids first, says U of T lecturer Hanna McDonough.

"Research shows that it's not the divorce that hurts children, it's the intensity of the parental conflict that damages them. Children can feel pulled apart and drawn into acting like spies, pawns and mediators," says McDonough, a clinical social worker with the child psychiatry program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (Clarke division) and lecturer in U of T's department of psychiatry. Children need unconflicted closeness to both parents to endure the loss of the family, she says, adding that 75 per cent of divorcing parents do develop co-operative parenting relationships. In very high conflict divorces, children can develop problems with aggression, anxiety and depression.

In a new book, Putting Children First - A Guide for Parents Breaking Up (University of Toronto Press), McDonough and co-author Christina Bartha, administrative director of the centre's mood and anxiety program, help parents understand the trauma of divorce for both adults and children, and discuss how to deal with tricky situations that arise in ways that protect the children. They also examine the causes and destructiveness of high conflict divorces. One child, from their clinical practice, wanted to photocopy himself so he could be with both parents while another wanted to 'rewind the videotape' to the time when her parents were happily married.

For parents who are separating, McDonough has some advice - kids need both parents, change your spousal relationship into a business-parental team, give up legal terminology like custody and visitation, don't denigrate each other in front of a child and don't demonize each other. She also suggests parents avoid court and work with mediators, counsellors and lawyers to establish a parental plan -- a legal contract that states how parents will share child-rearing responsibilities.
-end-


University of Toronto

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