Mitigating High Conflict Divorce - End the Cycle of Conflict – Focus On the Children

High levels of parental conflict have consistently been shown to be among the most destructive factors in both intact and divorced families.  Currently, we have an epidemic of children caught up in the chaos and turmoil of parental conflict.  Studies show that in the United States, on average, 50% of all marriages will fail, and that out of those that fail, 30% will become high conflict divorces.  Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t end when the divorce is final, and this leaves the children of these high conflict relationships at risk in many areas of their life: emotionally, physically, educationally and financially.

Children involved in high conflict divorce are trapped between two parents who have lost their perspective on the most important piece of the divorce equation: their children. The children feel stressed out, confused, guilty, and have no sense of safety.  They are asked to choose between parents, and are frequently given way too much information to assimilate.  It is not the child’s role to be involved on any level during the divorce.  Children need at least one parent who is able to create an environment that allows them to feel safe and nurtured no matter what is going on in the parent’s life.  If divorces at risk for high conflict are identified at an early stage, parents can be referred to programs that will teach them how to reduce conflict, increasing the chances for a positive outcome.

Conflict consists of five basic aspects: fear, money, control, revenge and substance abuse or some other form of psychopathology.  These five aspects rarely stand alone, and are often intertwined with one another.  Before moving towards resolution of the high conflict cycle, the cause of the conflict must be identified.  Once we understand what the conflict is about, we can then implement strategies to remove it. Disengagement is the first step.  Finding ways to disengage is often one of the hardest – and the most critical – things to do.  If marital conflict is carried into the post-separation world, the parent never moves on.  Basic rules for disengagement need to be established early.  A small sampling of disengagement guidelines consists of:

  • Avoid face-to-face exchanges.  Reactivity during face-to-face meetings is high, and should be avoided whenever possible. With some effort, face-to-face contact can be almost completely eliminated.  Exchanges can be made at school, preschool or at the babysitter, and with the help of
    third party-drop offs or pick-ups.  Parenting planscan be adjusted to reflect fewer exchanges.  These methods can help greatly in the reduction of contact, and thus the opportunity for conflict.
  • Avoid verbal contact.  Just as in face-to-face contact, reactivity is high in any form of direct, verbal communication.  Communicating through non-verbal means is preferred. Contact through email, fax or text messaging serve as good alternatives for communicating with the ex. They allow for communicating only the facts regarding the children, and avoid the opportunity for impulsive exchanges of words.

Many people find that they may need some help with parenting due to new challenges that arise from the divorce. Parenting classes may be of great help at this time. One of the best is Redirecting Children’s Behavior. These classes are available throughout the country and the model used has been taught for over thirty years.  It is critical that parents take time to educate themselves in parenting skills and the discovery of deeper ways of connecting with the children.

After Disengagement, Parallel Parenting is the next step to removing parents from conflict (please see sidebar, “Parallel Parenting Involves…”). This means, for example, that each parent takes care of their house with their own sets of rules and traditions. When the children are with Mom, she may have one set of rules.  With Dad, there may be a different set of rules. Children are very capable of dealing with two sets of rules.

People often remain in conflict because they are, in some way, attached to it – either because it has become a habit, or because the fear of life without the distraction of the conflict is scary. That is to say, it’s easier to stay with something we know simply because of its familiarity, as opposed to transitioning to something we’re unfamiliar with.  Giving up the conflict frequently means that the marriage is really over.  The phrase, “It takes two to tango” is apt, here.  BUT…If one parent simply changes their way of thinking and acting, the conflict almost always ends.  There may also be the desire to move on, even if this desire rests with only one parent.  Again – all it takes is just one parent to change the cycle of conflict.  Once this parent begins to set boundaries, the dynamics of the relationship change, and the conflict begins to cease.  A new way of thinking must be engaged for a life free of those issues that caused the divorce in the first place.


Parallel Parenting Involves:

“Mom’s House” and “Dad’s House” – Different Rules!

  • Children will adapt to each house.
  • If there are safety concerns about the other parent’s home, children should be educated in these areas – the children will react accordingly.
  • Parents need to keep their own house “clean”, as opposed to attempting to influence the other house.  This is a vital component of successful parallel parenting.  The only place that parents can affect change is in their own home.
  • Let the children work out their own relationship with the other parent.  It is unlikely that one parent will be able to change the way the other parent acts.  Instead, the parent should focus on his or her own relationship with the children.

Create A Safe Haven

  • Get a counselor for the children
    Divorce is a hard time for children.  Their world has been torn apart, and their sense of safety along with it. They need a neutral place to talk about what is going on for them, away from the conflicted parents. Having this opportunity can help them settle and begin to move forward in their lives.
  • Review Custody and Visitation Orders

Know exactly what is in the court orders. This alleviates mistakes when asking for something around visitations. Confusion, lack of clarity, and misinterpretation of these orders often initiates high conflict cycles between parents.  If the orders are unclear or not understood, obtain clarification from the appropriate legal representative as soon as possible. Forward thinking can save much distress, as well as a lot of time and money in the future.

  • Direct attention towards the children

Children need parental attention more than any one thing in their world. They need to know that their parents are front and center when it comes to taking care of them, creating structure and a safe and nurturing environment within which to flourish.

  • Establish a new relationship with the children

When divorce occurs, the structure and interaction between family members changes, and new ways of relating need to be created. It is important to establish new ways to listen and be with one’s children so they know that their parent is available for them.  Equally important is a clear definition of the new family structure – this will also help them cope with changes, settle, and feel safe.

© Brook Olsen 2007

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