What has been termed "Madonna's bitter custody battle" regarding her 15-year-old son, Rocco, sounds like every teenage boy's worst nightmare.

No one ever said these type of conflicts are anything but excruciatingly painful for all caught up in them: Parents, children, siblings, grandparents. The intense emotion typically dissipates over time, but usually creates a lasting and significant impact for the child or young person caught in the middle.

Too many times to count, I have worked with families and their children as they argue about who should "have" the child and when. And like a frightened possum caught in headlights, that child is frozen in the middle - and will often develop symptoms.

Recently, two high conflict parents asked me to meet with their little girl. She had tummy pains. The doctors said there was no medical reason for them.

Advertisement

This little girl told me told me that her worst dilemma was that at Dad's new home she could choose a colour for her bedroom wall. Dad loved green and Mum loved blue.

Through tears she said that that her worst problem in the world was that she could not choose between green and blue.

This is what we know as a double bind. Hellish enough for us as adults to be caught in a bind - so much worse for a child who simply does not have the emotional ability to manage it without terrible guilt and self blame. Tummy ache was an obvious physical manifestation of an impossible dilemma for this seven-year-old.

Other children will respond by completely aligning with one parent to the exclusion of the other. It is one way children will deal with the terrifying spectre of the impossible.

If this alignment compounds over time, it carries a dreadful emotional price which can take years to recover from.

Australian research tells us that one in four children caught up in ongoing parental conflict develop a formal mental health diagnosis. It is a public health issue here as well.

Staying together "for the sake of the children" when the conflict and unhappiness cannot be resolved, is no longer is viewed as the right decision.

Separation with parents determined to be cooperative can leave children resilient and equipped to make a healthy adaptation. But ongoing conflict between separated parents produces some of the most symptomatic and unwell children seen by health professionals.

Younger children and teenagers inevitably have different parenting needs and arrangements. The aim of resolving family disputes under our family law (The Care of Children Act), is about getting it right for the child or young person - "in the child's best interests".

Children do best with both responsible parents in their lives, in an arrangement that works for the child's age and developmental stage.

A judge in London's High Court urged Madonna and Guy Ritchie to reach an "amicable resolution" to their dispute, saying that it was Rocco who was suffering most of all. No surprises there.

Phrases bandied around in the media, such as" Madonna's world has been shattered", and "she won't give up being his mother" are just the type of stigma-inducing and inflammatory language that one traditionally associated with family court disputes about children and their care arrangements.

Sadly it is so often the case that the issue is actually regarding the parent's relationship with each other - each raging at the latest insult - this time at being shamed by the other as not able to adequately parent .

A conflict which goes right to the heart of who we are and what we want for the children we love.

New Zealand parents in dispute about their children are now directed to family mediation before they can apply to go to court. This is the case in other jurisdictions in Australia and Europe too.

I have long advocated that children be given an opportunity to be heard - "a voice, not a choice" - using a skilled professional practice outside court. It gives the child an opportunity for natural justice - to express what they are feeling. And so very often parents will realign when they realise what is happening for the child they both love.

The little girl who wanted so much to get the paint colour right was hugely relieved that her parents seemed to understand her dilemma - and in response they lowered their conflict dramatically.

Another child told me that his parents, (who had him week and week about), had enrolled him in two different soccer teams in different part of his city. He told me that the worst fear of his young life was that one Saturday he would find himself in a draw to play himself. The absurdity of his situation was not lost on him.

The relief for parents and children when they can break free from the conflict is palpable.

Put simply, if it works for the children then it works for the parents, which means it works for the children.

And if after a while the structure begins to wobble again, then returning to a tested, non-adversarial mediation process is a relief. It's not that separated families should not have problems to sort - it is all about how they are sorted.

I have not yet met a child who has not said to me that they just want their parents to stop fighting. Apart from situations which are dangerous and urgent and which need court orders, finding a way to close the gap between yourself and the other parent, through mediation or any other low conflict means, will be one of the most important things you could ever do for your child's wellbeing.

- nzherald.co.nz