Parental high conflict can have a negative impact on child custody cases. A leading child psychiatrist has warned that high conflict between parents can affect children’s brain development and interfere with their ability to learn. Dr. Jean Clinton, a clinical psychiatrist and professor at McMaster University , has found that the trauma caused by dueling adults can boost stress to such high levels that it affects the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. “Childhood experiences build the brain and build the reactivity of the stress system, and the damaging impact of that may not be shown for many, many years,” said Clinton, who has worked with children and families for 25 years. Without intervention, it can contribute to problems later in life, ranging from depression and anxiety to heart disease.
While some amount of stress is a necessary part of everyday life, Clinton said its crucial that everyone involved understand the long-term affect of toxic stress associated with intense, frequent, unresolved fighting. “It’s the conflict that’s the issue,” she said. “It’s not divorce that’s the issue, it’s all the inter-parental stuff that happens before that.”
In its simplest terms, high stress triggers the emotional reaction center of the brain and the “fight or flight” mode that boosts heart rate, adrenalin and releases cortisol. One of the brain areas most sensitive to high cortisol is the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in new learning and memory. So being in a perpetual state of high alert diverts energy and interferes with activity in that learning center. “When the cortisol is up and stays up, new learning cannot happen,” said Clinton. She noted research has found that academic problems in children may precede their parents’ divorce by four to 12 years.
In infants, stress may play out in other ways. They may be difficult to soothe and become more irritable with any change of environment, because their systems have not learned to make adjustments.
Adolescents under prolonged stress may act out with aggression, impulsiveness or risky behavior. The prefrontal cortex, which regulates judgment, impulse control, planning and decision-making, is the slowest part of the brain to develop and continues evolving until the mid-20s. So the key is keeping the “emotional brain” calm so that it doesn’t dominate. In situations of high conflict, teens may be in perpetual state of stress that prompts triggers the emotional brain to take over, leading to bad decisions and volatile behavior.
If you have a high conflict child custody situation, contact Phoenix Attorneys, Lasiter & Jackson for assistance.
Originally published, in part, by Parentcentral.ca, April 19, 2012, by Andrea Gordon.