New online platform helps families in conflict

16 Dec 2022

“How parents split up makes a huge difference”: An interview with psychologist and educationalist Sabine Walper about parents in conflict and the online platform STARK (“Strong”), which helps families in conflict or separation.

A child holds a silhouette in her hands.

Protracted and destructive conflicts

in which the parents are consistently hostile to each other are very stressful for children. | © PantherMedia / Ronalds Stikans

A research consortium led by LMU Professor Sabine Walper has launched an online platform to help families who experience couple conflict or parental break-up. In this interview, Walper explains, among other things, what a break-up means for children and what parents should look out for.

Professor Walper, what conflicts cause relationships to collapse?

Sabine Walper: The most frequent source of conflict is how partners treat each other. The expectation of a relationship today is usually that it makes comprehensively happy. This is not always easy to achieve.

A frequent reason for separation, especially among couples with children, is an unsatisfactory division of labor that leaves no time for togetherness. If there is a lack of time for two as a couple, it is easy to drift apart. And if there is no recognition for what each partner contributes to the family – be it in raising the children or earning a living – then disappointment sets in and conflicts can escalate.

How children feel when their parents split up

How do children feel when their parents split up?

One key finding of our research at LMU is that it makes a huge difference how the parents split up. Protracted and destructive conflicts in which the parents are consistently hostile to each other are very stressful for children. This is true not only in separated families, but also when the parents are still together. In the latter case, the burden on the children can sometimes be even more pronounced.

Has that changed in any way in recent decades?

There is an observable trend that conflicts prior to separation no longer escalate as much as they did in the past. When breaking up was still more heavily stigmatized and the “question of guilt” was still fought out in the divorce courts, separations tended to be put off for longer and there were often serious problems before that happened. Today, there are more separations because the parents have drifted apart.

Is it better for children in either case if the parents do separate?

Not necessarily. If the relationship between the parents was relatively free of conflicts and appeared to be unencumbered before the split, the children have more to lose and less to win. On the other hand, if the children were constantly exposed to fights before the split, then a separation can bring them relief – provided that, after the break-up, the parents manage to more or less resolve their conflicts. However, problems between parents do not automatically end when they break up. Around ten percent of separated families are regarded as highly conflicted, because they repeatedly take their conflict to court, and because neither counseling nor mediation helps. That is very tough for all concerned, including the children.

However, most parents manage to reach a largely amicable modus vivendi, at least after a while. If there are still conflicts and grievances, it is easier for the parents if they can simply avoid each other. With small children, though, that is hard to organize. Here, the handover from one parent to the other may have to be organized via the nursery, for example. In such cases, the parent who has moved out often has less contact with the child.

Families after a break-up

What do parents expect of life after a break-up?

Norms and ideas about living together after a break-up have changed very considerably. Fathers make much greater efforts to have regular contact with the children than they used to. They are not content to see their children only every second weekend and will go to court to assert their rights.

After splitting up, almost all parents continue to share joint legal custody. And many parents – especially fathers – also want share physical custody on an alternating basis, with the children staying with either parent for roughly half of each month. Having said that, only about five percent of separated families in Germany operate this model.

Which families do that?

The German Panel Analysis of Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics (pairfam), which ran as a multidisciplinary longitudinal study in association with LMU, showed that parents of younger children in particular adopt the alternating model. It seems to be more difficult when the children are in school. In line with international findings from Europe and the USA, pairfam also showed that especially parents with higher educational resources realize this approach. One very important question is whether the alternating model is effective in easing the burden on mothers, giving them more time to pursue their career and putting them in a better financial position than other single parents. To date, our observations have not been able to confirm this. There is still a need to improve employment and reconciliation opportunities and to change social expectations about the share that mothers in particular must play in caring for children.

What alternatives are there to the alternating model if both parents want to look after the children?

One alternative to “commuting children” is the rarely practiced nest model. In this case, the youngsters stay in their regular home while the parents alternate in moving in from their own homes. That is financially demanding, as three homes are needed, and it is often only a transitional solution. Some family courts advise parents to try out the nest model ahead of the alternating model to get a feel for what it is like regularly commuting to another home.

It is important to keep children out of the inner conflict

How can parents help their children when they are in conflict or separation?

First of all by not giving vent to their conflict in front of the children. If they notice that things are getting really heated, very toxic topics are being addressed and they are almost coming to blows, that is when parents need strategies to withdraw from the situation – especially when a child is in the next room. After all, who has got walls so thick that their heated argument cannot be heard through them? The conversation can be put off until the evening. Or it might be worth going out for a walk, or whatever. Otherwise, the open conflict can undermine the sense of security that children need in the family. The feeling that “this is my nest, I am safe here, here we all look after each other” evaporates if parents only ever argue and fight.

So, it is important to keep children out of the inner conflict in which the parents are engaged. That means not saying bad things about the other parent, not making derogatory comments, not even raising an eyebrow. That is perhaps the hardest part of all: In an emotionally charged crisis situation, many parents find it extremely difficult to control themselves. But the aim must still be not to destroy the child’s relationship to the other parent. That would harm the child – and ultimately make life harder for the parent acting in this way, too. Our studies clearly show that, by adolescence at latest, children distance themselves from a parent who puts pressure on them, speaks ill of the other parent or even demands that the child should “love them more” than the other parent.

How should parents behave toward the children, then?

The important thing is not to let the conflict with the other parent spill over into your relationship with the child. Some mothers and fathers are indeed quite successful in creating a counterpoint to the crisis in their relationship and still give the children positive experiences. But many are simply too stressed out in their relationship crisis to be relaxed, cheerful and devoted to their children.

The terrible thing is that, precisely because of this, children lose the emotional support they so desperately need in stressful conflictual situations. Worse still, younger children quickly suspect that they are to blame for the crisis. They try to distract the parents, be on their best behavior – all simply because they want their parents to love each other again.

It is vital to keep children free of this responsibility, and to convey to them that it is neither their in their power nor their task to resolve their parents’ conflicts.

Help before a break-up

You have launched a website – STARK (“Strong”) – to help parents and children in family crisis situations. What does the website have to offer?

One special aspect is that our project addresses parents both during relationship cries and during and after the break-up phase – as well as addressing children aged eleven and over. It is important to us to empower the children not only indirectly, via their parents, but also directly.

We aim to help parents to assess the problem situation even before the separation and offer tips and guidance at times when the relationship is really difficult. Many couples find their way to couple therapy much, much too late, and it is often easier to look for information on the Internet.

STARK, for example, takes a closer look at communication patterns between couples. STARK also provides parents with information about legal and financial issues such as child custody and maintenance payments, but also about models of shared parenting and questions on how parents can work together: What should they expect? What is important for the children? How does separation cause the least harm to children? In addition, we give hints on how parents can recharge their own batteries in order to safely navigate the family through a break-up and still be there for the children.

Prof. Sabine Walper

Prof. Sabine Walper

© Stefan Obermeier,Muenchen

Psychologist and educationalist Professor Sabine Walper has held LMU’s Chair of Education since 2001, focusing strongly on youth research. Since 2012, she has been released from her teaching duties to serve as Director of the German Youth Institute (DJI) in Munich. In this capacity, she served initially as Research Director and, since last year, as Director and Chairwomen of the Board of the Institute.

Her research concentrates on numerous topics surrounding the family, childhood and youth. Together with the team of Familiennotruf München (Munich Family Emergency Hotline), Walper developed the course “Kinder im Blick” (An Eye on Children) for parents who are separated.

For more information, see:

The acronym derived from the initials of the German words for “overcoming disputes and separation: everyday assistance, advice and conflict resolution” which produce the German word STARK, meaning “strong”. STARK is a new website designed to support couples experiencing relationship crises, as well as parents, children and youngsters as they seek to deal with separation and divorce.

The topics addressed include conflict situations and relationship problems in the partnership, legal and financial issues, and psychological concerns relating to family break-ups. Funded by the German Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors Citizen, Women and Youth, this project is led by experts from LMU, the German Youth Institute and the University of Ulm. Other cooperation partners include Heidelberg University Hospital, the University of Göttingen and Ulm University Hospital.

Link: Website Stark

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