Some of the toughest work that I do currently often involves children who have a high conflict parent. These high conflict individuals often, but not always, fit the criteria for a personality disorder. People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) are among the most likely culprits and are some of the toughest parents to deal with. They seem to manage to make things difficult for literally everyone else that has any dealings with their children including teachers and other school faculty, medical professionals, therapists and especially the other parent. The impact of high conflict individuals (HCI’s) on their children is significant and sometimes worrisome as it can have a serious detriment to the mental health of their children, even into adulthood. Children cannot effectively offset the chaos that the high conflict parent brings to their life. However, if the other parent is not high conflict in the manner of narcissism or borderline, they can have a powerfully positive influence on their child that will hopefully help offset some of the damage that HCI’s cause to kids.
Unfortunately, family courts generally don’t care if a parent is causing psychological harm to a child. And for the most part neither does child protective services. Even in cases of obvious abuse, child protective services does not always intervene. As a therapist, I strongly advocate for parents with a high conflict ex to become extremely active and involved and I often work with them to create effective long term approaches and strategies to tackle these difficult and complicated issues. I believe that a child’s behavior can be indicators that they have a high conflict parent with a personality disorder. I call these behaviors “echos.” Children who are raised by an HCI inevitably end up in therapy as an adult; volumes have been written about children being raised by narcissists and the long term detriment it can have in an individual’s life as they grow older. In my experience, children who are raised by an HCI either become an HCI themselves or they basically become an inverted version of it. The following are five troubling behaviors that I have seen in kids who have a HCI as a parent. These are five of my ‘echo’s’:
1. Parent alienation – This is one of the most obvious behaviors, it’s easy to spot and just basically looks like a blind, unjustified hatred towards the non conflict parent. Don’t take it personally if it seems like your kid hates you for no reason other than “you’re a bad person” or otherwise have been painted as a monster. Kids usually lock into a loyalty with the HCI when they are young as an act of self-preservation and one that is motivated by fear. If they falter in their loyalty to the HCI, it can usually come with heavy consequences. It’s a safer road when they are young. If your child seems to hate you and they are relatively young, like 14 or younger, my advice is to hang in there. As they get older, they start to have disagreements with the HCI and they start to butt heads. It’s not uncommon for a kid to have unfaltering loyalty to their HCI parent and within a couple of years there is a complete falling out. As kids get older, the HCI parent becomes far less physically imposing and the fear around them usually breaks apart and starts to fall away.
2. Severe social anxiety – To be fair, most kids have anxiety around going to school, meeting new people, making new friends, etc. However, what usually tips me off is an early onset. It’s not normal or natural for a kid to obsess and have anxiety over friends and peers at young ages. An 8 year old, for an example, may have some anxiety about going to school and interact with peers but they usually adjust quickly and move on. Adult like fears around what can go wrong with peers and friendships are not things that a child mind is able to fabricate. It comes from somewhere. So when I encounter a younger child with severe social anxiety, it’s likely that they have been around a parent who is high conflict and learned irrational fears from them. Watch for them expressing an intense fear of being rejected or abandoned, again this is not a fear that children develop on their own when they are young, they usually learn it from a high conflict parent.
3. Extremely poor self-image – While I believe that most teens and pre-teens struggle with self-esteem, the key here and where I raise alarm when the child has extremely poor self-esteem and also in an early onset. It’s extremely common for a 14 year old, for example, to have a poor self-image but for kids who are 10-11 or younger to develop a poor self-image is a big red flag. When they take on labels such as stupid or worthless at young ages, it becomes a matter of concern. It’s also common for them to be highly committed to it, that is, they won’t budge on the idea or allow any attempts to dispute how they feel about themselves. Sometimes kids take on negative self-talk in order to increase the amount of positive attention they get from others but when the kid gets upset and angry when they are given positive attention, there’s probably a bigger problem. If your child is struggling in this way, you can help them by listening, validating them and assuring them that you love them no matter what.
4. Self-harming talk or behavior – This includes suicide. In my experience, I’ve seen kids as young as ten years old express a desire to die or kill themselves. They may even cut or harm themselves. The key here is, again, early onset. It’s relatively common for teens as young as 13 or so to think about or talk about suicide. When a child who is 10 and talks about suicide, there’s a much bigger problem. Sometimes they even talk about harming themselves in ways that are very violent. It’s a huge red flag if a 9 year old child says that they want to hang themselves or something equally intense. They don’t come up with things like this on their own, they got the idea from an adult.
5. Show aggression, anger and violence – I once worked a case in which medical professionals in an emergency room documented an angry 6 year old boy who was telling nurses that he was going to break their legs and slit their throats. Again, kids just don’t come up with this stuff, it comes from somewhere. Upon further investigation, the boy had a tendency to get into a lot of fights in school as he grew older. The dad who was an HCI stated that it was because of the violent video games that boy usually played. The problems with this argument is that if this were true, then it would be extremely common to see this behavior in other small children. HCI’s can create and cause extreme levels of anger in their children which is almost always misplaced. That is, they seem to be selective about where the anger goes. They may be extremely polite with some and extremely aggressive with others. In cases like this, I am accustomed to seeing kids place their anger in situations or onto people that are generally safer or in other words, where they are less likely to get punished severely. They know that if the demonstrate this behavior around their high conflict parent, it’s going to come back on them in a very bad way. Watch for high levels of anger that seem out of proportion to the situation. Also watch for extremely strong reactions to small things, an example would be that they become extremely angry and aggressive if someone takes something from them without asking. You can help them by listening and providing a safe place and person to talk to. You can also help them by providing a quiet area away from the stimulus. Be sure to emphasize that this is not a punishment, just a place for them to calm down away from other people.
There are many other behaviors that I consider to be echos of having a high conflict parent. Be sure to subscribe so that you get my articles when I write them. Sometimes getting help from a professional can make a huge difference. As a low conflict parent, your kids will need you more than you can comprehend. I hope you will give me the opportunity to work with you and your family.