Expert meeting "Children's Mental Health in Modern Society" organised by the Child Protection Center of the City of Zagreb and the Psychiatric Hospital for Children and Youth was held on March 20th 2015 on the premises of the Child Protection Center of the City of Zagreb. The aim of the meeting was focused on the improvement of professional competences of experts working with children with most prevalent developmental, emotional and behavioural problems and those exposed to stressful and traumatic experience, and on the support provided to parents.
We congratulate to our Head of Diagnostics and Treatment, clinical psychologist, Renata Ćorić Špoljar, Ph.D., who defended her doctoral dissertation at the Study Center for Social Work at the Faculty of Law in Zagreb on the topic “Determinants of Children’s Adjustment to High-Conflict Divorce” under the mentorship of Prof. Slavica Blažek Kokorić, Ph.D. and Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D.
Dealing with issues of divorce, especially conflict divorces and their influence on children through daily professional work at the Center, psychologist Renata Ćorić Špoljar, Ph.D. also decided to take a scientific approach to this issue. Children’s exposure to intense parental conflicts is one of the most emphasized risks for successful adjustment of children to divorce, which is in itself highly stressful and is generally perceived by children as a loss. The attention of scientists and experts is focused on deepening the understanding of children’s position in high-conflict divorce as well as preventing negative developmental outcomes and protecting the well-being of this vulnerable group of children.
Doctoral thesis preview
This doctoral thesis presents the results of a study conducted on a sample of 272 children with experience of high-conflict divorce. In the research model, the relationship was observed between some characteristics of child, parents, relationship between the child and the parents, characteristics of the divorce and the accompanying adverse events with child’s adjustment to the experience of high-conflict divorce in the Croatian context.
The results of the study indicate that for a better adjustment of the child to high-conflict divorce, a low intensity of parental conflict appeared to be significant, if the child didn’t witness parental conflict and wasn’t exposed to their manipulative actions. Furthermore, protective factors were found to be higher quality of parenting and the attachment of the child to the parent, continuity of place of residence and school, as well as not separating from siblings. Also, mental stability of parents and in one segment, the support that the parent receives from family were proved important.
Risk factors of child adjustment were child witnessing physical conflict between parents before separation and changing the place of residence after parents’ separation, duration of time the child spent growing up in conflict between parents and the traumatic experiences of unrelated to the divorce. An interesting finding was the positive correlation between higher intelligence of a child and increased anxiety, and in one part the positive correlation between support of wider family and a higher level of loyalty conflict in the child.
Since the research covered a wide range of different variables, which enabled a better understanding of life circumstances and understanding of the difficulties encountered by a population of children with experience of high-conflict divorce, this makes it possible to identify predictors that contribute to better adjustment for children. Therefore, in addition to contributing to widening scientific knowledge, certain practical guidelines have been provided to create professional interventions to work with population of parents and children that are going trough divorce and to promote preventive and treatment work with parents and children.
Practical guidelines for improving preventive and treatment work with parents and children
In the context of treatment with children, research findings suggest that it is especially important to focus professional interventions on children who have been exposed to parental conflicts for a long period of time as well as on children who have been exposed to traumatic experiences such as the loss of a loved one. Also, the results show that in accessing children who are going through the experience of divorce, particular attention should be focused on a population of children whose higher levels of intelligence are accompanied by higher levels of anxiety. Adequate supportive treatment should be provided to this population of children, without implying that higher intelligence and associated higher school achievement speak in favor of good adjustment and resilience of the child.
In context of treatment work with parents, results of this study emphasize that in the professional assessment and work plan with parents, attention should also be focused on considering the risks arising from the influence of the wider family, in form of heightened loyalty conflict in child. Accordingly, if necessary, it is important to involve members of wider family in professional treatment. Furthermore, since parental mental stability has been proven as a protective factor for more successful adjustment of children in situations of high-conflict divorce, early intervention and protective measures are important to work on to strengthen parents’ mental stability and empowerment, and to improve parenting quality by including parents in parenting schools, counseling, family therapy, etc. In treatment work with parents, a special attention should be focused on recognizing manipulative actions of parents, and in this context it is important to take steps to protect children from harmful effects of this form of emotional abuse on time.
In order to facilitate children’s to divorce, it is important to ensure, as much as possible, the stability of environment and the continuity of child’s previous relationships with members of their social network (siblings, school) and to ensure conditions in which the child will be able to exercise their right for personal relations both parents without interruption.
Director: “I am especially proud that, apart from the day-to-day professional and highly specialized clinical work, we also address this issue at the scientific level”
Director of the Center, Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D., congratulated Renata Ćorić Špoljar, Ph.D.: ”As director of the Center and a co-mentor on this dissertation, I am particularly proud that, apart from the daily professional and highly specialized clinical work, we also deal with this issue at the scientific level. The results which Ćorić Špoljar, Ph.D., obtained from a sample of 272 cases of high-conflict divorce clearly show that children live too long in a war zone because court proceedings take too long, expert witnessings further prolong the child living in an often emotionally abusive situation, and every year of life with high parental conflict significantly increases anxiety, depression and psychotraumatization in children. This should be an incentive for us to urgently, better and more persistently protect children who are exposed to parental conflict at all levels from healthcare and education to social work and the judiciary. “