How Boundary Ambiguity Between Parents Negatively Impacts Children

Do you get to have the same friends as your former partner has after separating? Do you still get to call their parents for help with the kids? Are you allowed to just walk into their house that use to be yours?

How do you know you can or can't do these things? Did you talk about these things with your ex-partner? Many parents haven't and evidence shows this negatively impacts a child's adjustment.

Researchers have studied extensively the impact of divorce on children. Less is known, however, about parental behavior during the divorcing process in relation to the impact of divorce on children. What is known is that conflict between parents is problematic for children (Amato, 2006; 2010). Before and after a divorce, a child is at greater risk for a variety of emotional and behavioral problems compared to a child not experiencing parental divorce (Amato & Afifi, 2006; Amato et al., 2011).

One of the most significant potential sources of stress is boundary ambiguity as a family unit changes because of divorce (Emery, 1994). Pauline Boss et al., (1990) describe boundary ambiguity as defined as the family not knowing who is "in" and who is "out" in different ways in the family system. Boundaries between co-parents become ambiguous as there is a change in the relationship as they transition from being spouses to being divorced/separated co-parents. This could also be a source for arguments between co-parents as each partner may interpret their boundaries differently. For example, one co-parent may assume it is appropriate to call their ex-partner's parents to watch their mutual children, while the other may disagree. Most of these misunderstandings turn into conflict and children just see the negative outcomes from these misunderstandings.

Coparents who have ambiguous boundaries may be unable to adjust to the change and focus on the needs and well-being of their children, which in turn creates an unstable and stressful environment (Beckmeyer et al., 2019). Many parents are in autopilot as it is typically a very stressful time, but slowing down to heal and make efforts towards better parenting makes things better for your kids now and in the long run.

Working with a professional can help provide structure to the conversation, but parents can have these helpful conversations on their own if they can be constructive. When former spouses engage in cooperative co-parenting, they work collaboratively to manage their child’s care and activities through frequent, child-centered communication, and minimal conflict (Adamsons & Pasley, 2006).

So what do you do? Are we doomed if we can't talk about boundaries?

Figuring out boundaries is huge and promoting a healthy environment at both houses is essential and why therapy involving both parents during the divorce process might be essential. It is important for boundaries between co-parents to be directly discussed and the structure that therapy provides can be very helpful.

A professional can provide ideas on what topics need to be discussed in regard to boundaries and tools for how to have the conversations. Children seem to benefit when parents communicate frequently, have similar rules in both households, and parents support each other’s authority and parenting role (Amato et al., 2011). However, this is often not a reality as many post-divorce co-parenting relationships are parallel, conflicted, or uninvolved (Beckmeyer et al., 2019). If parallel or uninvolved co-parenting relationships are preventing conflict or harm to parent-child relationships they may be necessary, but it is important to assess if/how the co-parenting relationship can be improved since they strongly impact children. Again, the help of a professional can help with assessing the needs of the children and guiding co-parents to communicate in a child-focused manner.

Ideas where boundaries are helpful-

- communication between parents

- topics off-limits

- contact with extended family

- discussing new relationships

- when conflict arises

- topics discussed in front of children

- talking about one another to children

What about if we are in that 10% of "high conflict" co-parents?

Conflict typically decreases and children’s adjustment concerns become less severe over time following divorce, but 8 to 12% of parents remain highly conflictual with their former partner in the years following a divorce (Kelly, 2012; Lansford, 2009). Some parents need to engage in parallel parenting which is minimal engagement with one another to provide two healthy, functional households. If you and your co-parent are unable to get through conversations, a skilled professional may be required to facilitate the conversations. When in a conflictual co-parenting relationship, there are a few different neutral professionals that could fit the needs of your family such as a skilled mediator, family therapist, parenting coach, or parenting consultant. It is best to discuss your options with a knowledgeable legal or mental health professional.

- Erin Guyette, MS, LAMFT


Adamsons, K., & Pasley, K. (2006). Coparenting following divorce and relationship dissolution. In M.A. Fine & J. H. Harvey (Eds). Handbook of divorce and relationship dissolution. (pp. 241-261). Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 650-666.

Amato, P. R., & Afifi, T. D. (2006). Feeling caught between parents: Adult children's relations with parents and subjective well‐being. Journal of marriage and family, 68(1), 222-235.

Amato, P. R., Kane, J. B., & James, S. (2011). Reconsidering the "good divorce." Journal of Family Relations, 60(5): 511–524.

Beckmeyer, J. J., Markham, M. S., & Troilo, J. (2019). Postdivorce coparenting relationships and parent-youth relationships: Are repartnership and parent-youth contact moderators? Journal of Family Issues, 40(5), 613-636.

Boss, P. G., Greenberg, J. R., & Pearce-McCall, D. (1990). Measurement of boundary ambiguity in families.

Emery, R.E. (1994). Renegotiating family relationships. Divorce, child custody and mediation. Guilford Press.

Kelly, J. B. (2012). Risk and protective factors associated with child and adolescent adjustment following separation and divorce. In K. Kuehnle & L. Drozd (Eds.), Parenting plan evaluations: Applied research for the family court (pp. 49–84). Oxford University Press.

Lansford, J. E. (2009). Parental divorce and children’s adjustment. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 140-152.