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Emotional Effect on Children in Divorce: Litigation v Mediation

November 22, 2023
Divorce Done Differently in PA
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When a parent is going through a divorce, one of the main things parents may focus on is to make sure that the decisions made during the divorce will be most beneficial for the children of the couple. While each situation varies from person to person, this focus may be especially important for the child of the couple, who may be in a vulnerable stage of emotional development during this difficult time.

Despite the best intentions, the outcome may vary depending on what divorce process the couple chooses. Depending on what process is taken, the results could lead to a messy divorce where no one is happy.

The Emotions Children Feel In A Divorce

Emotions associated with grief and loss are common for individuals experiencing divorce. Such emotions could include worry, wonder, unhappiness, and anger and can occur during different stages of the divorce. The most common and complicated emotion during a divorce is anger in children and adults, which is a common reaction to grief and loss. Consequently, if parents are not processing their emotions, such as sadness, grief, or anger, it will negatively affect the children by causing more conflict and tension in the transition. Children can become confused and upset about the divorce. And it is estimated that approximately one million children are affected by divorce every year.

Children of divorce may suffer behaviorally, psychologically, and emotionally. Divorce can present as a crisis in a child’s life. It can be a time of unfamiliar transition, and the child could have a hard time adjusting to the transition, and the distress associated with divorce could cause a shift in mood and trigger anxiety in children as well. As a result, divorce poses a challenging transition for the children to adjust to.

Research has also revealed that children with divorced parents are more likely to see a mental health professional, have problems with depressed moods, and have problems managing their behavior. Increased stress and tension are also risk factors for children who have experienced the divorce of their parents.

The Direction to Choose During a Divorce

Generally, the parties have two directions to choose from while navigating a divorce. They can choose a self-directed process like mediation or collaborative law where the parties decide how to share their assets, debts, and parenting time with the support and assistance of a mediator or collaborative lawyers. Others may choose the court system where they hand their families’ future over to the judges to decide what is the right call for the families’ finances and parenting plans in accordance with the law.

A traditional litigated divorce court environment pits one party against the other; the natural fight-or-flight instincts that may be triggered could result in the mental deterioration of all parties involved, with the child potentially getting caught in the emotional crossfire. As a result, a child enduring a traditional litigated divorce may end up scared and scarred for the rest of their lives and could pass this trauma onto future generations.

Compared to mediation, which focuses on cooperation, the effects a child may experience during a divorce may be mitigated as some of the potential tension and negative emotionality of the experience of divorce can be avoided through the divorce mediation process. Giving parents the chance to have more input and control over the outcome of their divorce can go a long way in reducing the stress of divorce for them. A less stressful divorce gives parents the time and energy to focus on helping their child process these big life changes. Thus, the smoother the divorce process, the better for the emotional stability of the child.

When a party’s focus is on what is best for the children, it may be helpful to compare how children faired after experiencing divorce through each of these types of divorce processes.

It may be helpful for parents in deciding which type of divorce process they choose to compare how children faired after the experience of a traditional litigated divorce with how children who experienced divorce through the mediation process.

By understanding the differences between the divorce process through mediation or collaborative divorce as compared to the divorce process through the courts with attorneys and judges, a person can better understand why each process may affect children differently.

Going Through Traditional Divorce

People are generally familiar with how a traditional court environment works. An unbiased judge makes a decision to resolve the parties’ issues after reviewing the written and spoken testimonies of the facts presented by both sides in conjunction with the laws that apply to those issues.

The way divorce is handled in a traditional court environment is built more from a system that focuses on the resolution of a conflict based on a standard set of rules into which the unique facts of an individual’s divorce are forced to fit. In a traditional divorce environment, the results are decided based on the law and how the Judge decides to apply the law to the facts each side presents.

Each side is pitted against the other to present the most compelling argument to the Judge that their set of facts means that the Judge should decide in their favor under the law. In a traditional court environment, the outcome is focused on reaching a decision where only one side is found to be right, and almost everything for the opposing side is deemed incorrect.

For the parties, this feels like a one-sided resolution. In addition, the other downside of this process is that the focus is simply on the laws and the facts, and the emotional aspects that are always part of any divorce are not part of the decision-making process for the court.

Results After Traditional Divorce

Due to the heated nature of the litigation process, each party can feel like they are being backed into a corner. Often, parties start to argue more based on worse-case scenarios and say things they may regret in the future. This leads to the trust between parents being further eroded. In these scenarios, children absorb all the tension between their parents. As a result, the child may feel conflicted and unsure who to trust.

The biggest emotional impact a child may feel after enduring a traditional divorce is the loss of trust and the questioning of what love is. Prior to their parents separating household, a child may have lived through their parents fighting often. Having experienced such a hostile environment during the developmental years of childhood, a child may be left wondering if love is nothing more than constant conflicts and unsure if they can ever really trust anyone in a relationship, including their future partner. In addition, the child’s once-familiar universe is imploded. A child of divorce is faced with coping with an unfathomable amount of stress, such as living in a new home and adjusting to new people being introduced into their inner family circle. These new challenges that the child faces and how they are navigated will affect them not only in the present but also in the long term. If the divorce ends up being particularly contentious, the parents may still have some hostilities remaining that the child may continue to experience during future interactions with both parents.

Often, the hostilities that arise between divorcing parents can come from miscommunications between the parent’s respective lawyers or the parents themselves. These miscommunications can often arise from the emotionality of a litigated divorce. This kind of miscommunication would lead both parents to become increasingly distrustful and defensive when dealing with their former partner.

These hostile interactions are extremely detrimental to a child’s emotional well-being. Not only are they emotionally stressful to the child, but the parents may be so immersed in their defensive posture with one another they may overlook the child’s emotional distress being suffered as a result of the divorce. Therefore, a child may be forced to suffer in silence during a traditional litigated divorce.

Children exposed to high conflict are more likely to be affected negatively and could also have weakened relationships with one or both parents. Divorce can also cause children to have to grow up too quickly, which could impact their adjustment and resiliency.

If a child develops emotional wounds from this trauma, that can last a lifetime and may even be potentially passed on to their future children. According to an article by the Washington Post, intergenerational trauma can pass between multiple generations through personal experiences and even genes. Combined with the normal childhood and teenage challenges a child might face, a child going through a traditional litigated divorce may suffer more deeply or become overwhelmed emotionally as a result of all the extreme changes happening to them.

Going Through Mediation

However, the extreme changes a child endures during a divorce can be mitigated if both parties take a more active part in deciding the future of their family during a divorce through the process of divorce mediation.

Despite concerns over the psychological well-being of children of divorce, researchers found that after being involved in divorce mediation, parents had decreased levels of distress and anxiety, which may overall be beneficial for children, as they may benefit from their parent’s decreased anxiety.

Given our country’s high divorce rate and its negative impact on children, families must become involved with mediation. This process facilitates a positive involvement of both parents in their children’s lives following divorce. As well as being positively involved, families and children are in need of interventions to manage conflicts and emotions. Research has shown that divorce mediation helps resolve emotional and agreement issues in family conflict, which could have a positive impact on children’s adjustment to the divorce.

One of the key aspects of divorce mediation is the focus on collaboration between both parties. By prioritizing cooperation, mediation promotes a satisfactory result for all parties involved. The cooperative process of divorce mediation reduces the stress for both parties as they are navigating their divorce. In addition, with cooperation being the focus of divorce mediation, the results can be more beneficial for the child’s future in the long term.

One of the most beneficial aspects for the child where the parents cooperate while navigating their divorce is that the parents’ can also work together to focus on meeting the child’s needs. This can result in reassuring the child and dissipating the child’s fears about all the big changes they are facing due to the divorce.

This cooperative approach also creates a calm atmosphere that allows the parents to talk about the divorce between themselves and the child. This also encourages the child to feel more comfortable talking about how they are feeling about the divorce and how it is affecting them. This open dialog can make the child feel more valued in the divorce discussion. While reassuring the child could also happen in the traditional litigated divorce environment, mediation is more likely to promote calmer interactions between the parents, which can greatly reduce the amount of tension felt by the parents and the child as the family transitions into separate households.

Results After Mediation

There are many benefits that stem from the divorce mediation process as compared with the litigated traditional divorce process.

Due to the more cooperative, relaxed environment created as part of the mediation process, parents may feel more relaxed talking to each other and may gain more understanding about the other parent’s perspective about what they need or think the child needs as they transition households. This can allow the child to adjust more successfully to the post-divorce environment.

In addition, these cooperative interactions between the parents ease tensions and allow the child to maintain healthier relationships with both parents and feel comfortable talking to each parent about their needs or wants. Maintaining healthy relationships with both parents helps a child build confidence for future long-term relationships. Also, by seeing both parents willingly cooperate after a divorce, the child may have a better understanding of how to handle relationship conflicts.

These benefits that are offered to a child who experiences divorce through mediation as opposed to litigation give the child a better chance at succeeding in future relationships while also preparing them for the trials and tribulations they may face.

Want to Know More?

If you are interested in a consultation to discuss the options available to resolve your divorce, custody issues, support, or equitable distribution issues, please contact me and I can help you investigate your options. Call me, Lenore M.J. Myers, at 215-470-3121 or email me at