“What we are doing does not work. Children are being damaged.” I quote those words from a paper written by Justice Andrea Moen. She is passionate about reforming the current family justice system to protect children from harmful effects of the traditional adversarial process used by many families during their divorce. I share her passion.
The brain is not formed purely as a consequence of genetic coding. While DNA contains the genetic program, the way the genes are expressed is a function of the environment. There is no longer a debate about nature versus nurture; brain development is a result of both. For healthy brain development, children require love, structure and stability to provide a nourishing environment to feel safe and secure.
When children do not feel safe their amygdala (the primitive part of the brain) takes over from the frontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for rational thought). Neurons in the brain change in response to the external environment. The amygdala tells us there is a threat and sends messages to the body in the form of increased adrenalin and cortisol. The body responds by fighting, freezing or fleeing. This adaptation allows us to survive and it is also the reason that trauma can damage the structure and process of the brain.
The amygdala is particularly sensitive to stress in infancy and early childhood. Childhood adversity produces long lasting structural and functional changes in the amygdala. With prolonged exposure to stress, the brain is exposed to elevated levels of cortisol, which over time will change the way the brain functions. While such brain changes may be adaptive in the short term, over time there is an impact on the person’s ability to regulate stress and fear responses and they are more likely to develop anxiety and disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Children may have difficulty concentrating and learning, problems with short term memory and difficulty controlling their emotions. Chronically elevated levels of stress hormones can also increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, liver and lung disease, stroke, diabetes and addictions.
Exposure to parental conflict creates a toxic environment for children. No parent would knowingly dose their kids with a bit of poison each day. And yet, parents who fight continuously in front of their children do just that. The most powerful action divorcing parents can take to protect their children is to not expose them to adult arguments.
It is not the divorce itself that harms children, but rather the exposure to prolonged and unresolved conflict. Exposure to toxic environmental stress not only impacts the brains of children, research shows that DNA is also modified and these children will pass these adverse changes in their DNA to their children.
The traditional adversarial process used in the courts requires divorcing parents to fight against each other and exacerbates the conflict between them. The very nature of the adversarial process creates a toxic environment for the children of these warring parents.
When parents make the decision to divorce, it is imperative that the children are protected from the effects that conflict has on children’s developing brains. The parents have the challenging task of continuing to provide the components of a safe and loving environment and a loving parental and child relationship while they are simultaneously ending their relationship as husband and wife. In the midst of deciding how to divide their property and manage the finances, the children’s well-being must be the absolute priority. Ironically the parents must strengthen their co-parenting relationship while at the same time effacing the marriage. As a friend of mine said: “I have never worked so hard on a relationship that I was not in.”
Mediation and collaborative divorce are child centered processes that help parents resolve issues without resorting to the courts.