Toxic Stress in High Conflict Divorce

Everyone has stress, and for the most part, we have good coping strategies to deal with the stress in our lives. There are even some benefits to having some stress. But stress that is unrelenting and intense that causes our bodies’ natural stress response system, the “Fight or Flight” response, to fire on overload is often referred to as “Toxic Stress.” Toxic stress is typically experienced in situations such as poverty, family violence, and high conflict divorce. Toxic stress has direct impacts on mental and physical health. It is particularly damaging in children.

In childhood, the brain is rapidly developing. The Fight or Flight response is a physiological response that starts in the brain but impacts the whole body. This includes releasing stress hormones which promote survival behaviours. However, in circumstances of toxic stress, the brain and body do not get a break from that survival state, the brain becomes flooded with the stress hormones, and this is bad for brain development. 

In situations of high conflict divorce, parents are often experiencing toxic stress for extended periods of time. This negatively impacts child development because parents then become less responsive and often more irritable and frustrated in their parenting. If children are witnessing the conflict between the parents, if parents are sharing adult information about the divorce, are speaking negatively about the other parent, or are crying or upset in front of the children, then children will also experience toxic stress. Over extended periods of time, without support, children will begin to be impacted cognitively, emotionally and academically. Because of this, it is important for parents to seek support for their children and themselves during and after the separation and divorce. This is particularly true in situations of High Conflict Divorce.

Many parents believe that their children are not impacted by the divorce, if the child is not expressing distress. However, even very young children will respond to these types of situations by becoming more compliant and even helpful as they take on compensating for the parents’ stress level. It is important for parents to understand that this response is not healthy for the child, although it is tempting for the parent to feel a false sense of reassurance in this situation. Understanding the negative and long-term impact of toxic stress and high conflict divorce is key to getting support for the family.