Court Cases & Orders

The “Toxicology of Conflict” and the Impact on Kids

Written by Russell Alexander / (905) 655-6335

The “Toxicology of Conflict” and the Impact on Kids

Few would dispute that separation and divorce can be very hard on the kids. But when viewed from the vantage point of a court trying to resolve the disputes between warring parents, the true toll that the parents’ conflict can take on children is something that courts have to consider in making their rulings.

For this reason, the 2013 decision in a case called Parham v. Jiang is particularly instructive, in that it details what the court calls the “toxicology of conflict” – and specifically the negative effect that exposure to their parents’ high level of acrimony can have on already-vulnerable children.

The court in that case wrote:

The Toxicology of Conflict

Parents involved in high conflict custody and access disputes typically fail to see the harm that they cause to their children, often believing that they are fighting for the best interests of the children. The evidence is clear that intense conflict causes significant harm to children. Parents are often unaware of this important fact. For this reason, I will quote at length from Jackson v. Jackson­, (2008) 2008 CanLII 3222 (ON SC), 50 R.F.L. (6th) 149 (Ont. Sup. Ct.) at paras. 7 and 20. In Jackson, the Court reviews social science evidence detailing the toxicology of conflict. In particular, the Court refers to Glenn A. Gilmour’s paper, ‘High-Conflict Separation and Divorce: Options for Consideration,’ prepared for the Department of Justice, Canada:

In this paper, Mr. Gilmour summarized the factors which contribute to impasse and conflict. These factors were identified by Johnston, Campbell and Tall (1985) using data on 80 divorcing families with 100 children, to develop a typology of factors contributing to impasse in divorce. Mr. Gilmour’s summary of these factors is worth quoting in full:

At the external level are unholy alliances and coalitions – the dispute can be solidified by the support of friends, kin and helping professionals. These unholy alliances and coalitions include extended kin involvement and tribal warfare, when the extended family (such as the spouse’s parents) took it upon themselves to right the wrongs of the separation; coalitions with helping professionals, in which alliances with therapists and counsellors fuelled the fight; and involvement with the legal process where, for example, adversarial attorneys take on the case and engage in tactical warfare with each other. Interactional elements include the legacy of a destructive marital relationship, in which each spouse while married had come to view the other in limited, negative terms; and traumatic or ambivalent separations in which the ex-spouses view each other in a polarized negative light or seem to maintain an idealized image of the other and are engaged in a never-ending search for ways of holding together their shattered dreams. Intrapsychic elements include the conflict as a defence against a narcissistic insult, where the central reason for the dispute is to salvage injured self-esteem or more primitive narcissistic grandiosity; a defence against experiencing a sense of loss, to ward off the emptiness that came from relinquishing each other; a need to ward off of helplessness brought about by the desertion of the other spouse; and disputes that were a defence against the parents’ guilt over feeling that they could have tried harder to save the marriage. The majority of parents in this study presented traits of character pathology, some clearly having personality disorders. In these cases, the motivation for the dispute derived more from their enduring personality characteristics, such as a need to fight, than from the experience of separation or the needs of the child. The children in these families took on a magnified importance because their parents got a great deal of emotional support and companionship from them…

Mr. Gilmour concludes, based on his review of numerous studies on parental conflict, that: “the literature indicates that parental conflict is a major source of harm to children, whether the children are in intact families or their parents have separated or divorced.” His conclusion mirrors that of others in the field. In High Conflict Family Court Cases: Working for the Child’s Best Interests, published in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, v. 24, no. 2 Jun 2003 at pp. 95-101, Read, L. concludes: “High levels of parental conflict in separated families can have a devastating impact on children and their development.”

These same theories and conclusions were adopted more recently in a 2016 case called Basley v. Basley.

What are your thoughts on the courts’ comments?

For the full text of the decisions, see:

Parham v. Jiang, 2013 ONSC 6003 (CanLII)

Jackson v. Jackson, 2008 CanLII 3222 (ON SC)

Bailey v. Basley, 2016 ONSC 5877 (CanLII)

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About the author

Russell Alexander

Russell Alexander is the Founder & Senior Partner of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers.