Stuck in a high conflict co-parenting situation? It's difficult to parent this way, and you know that it's not making your children happy, but what can you do? If you're feeling lost, let Dr. Joanne Baum help you. Joanne has worked for the courts in high-conflict divorce cases in the Denver Metro area since 1997. She has been a Special Advocate, a Child and Family Investigator, a Parental Responsibilities Evaluator, A Parenting Coordinator, a Decision Maker and an Arbitrator. She is currently doing divorce coaching with people who want to learn how to reduce the stress, reduce the conflict and communicate more effectively for the benefit of everyone's mental health.
The Effects of the Co-Parenting Relationship
LTK: What are some of the benefits of having a more stable/healthy co-parenting relationship?
JB: The benefits are tremendous in all areas of a child's development - emotional, social and cognitive. A child who sees parents in a stable and healthy co-parenting relationship gets to feel like divorces are simply a new phase in the family's life from having one loving home to two, safe, loving homes. The child is not caught in the middle. She is more relaxed and can focus on being a child, being loved, freely loving both parents, doing well in school, and having friends. The child does not get lost in between both homes. The parents communicate, and the child knows the parents are both paying attention, communicating and encouraging a loving relationship with the other parent, which makes growing up in healthy, attached way much easier for the children.
LTK: What are some of the most damaging consequences of high conflict co-parenting?
JB: The most damaging consequences are for the children who have trouble getting out of the middle of a parental battle - depending upon the age of the child. High conflict can seriously affect a child's emotional, social and cognitive development. Stress is particularly damaging to younger children (three or younger).
Stress post divorce has been found to be even more damaging for children than pre-divorce stress. In teens, it often leads to a child "aligning" with one parent because she cannot stand to be in the middle of the conflict anymore and in order to get out of the middle she "chooses" one parent over the other. It can affect a child's ability to have appropriate intimate relationships with others, to trust, to feel safe, to focus in school and out of school, it can hamper a child's ability to learn how to communicate effectively and resolve issues. She can also become belligerent and not resolve her own interpersonal problems because she hasn't learned how to.
Basically, continued high conflict is very damaging to children's ability to freely love both parents, to develop in all arenas - social , emotional, and cognitive. When they are in a lot of emotional pain they may try to hide or act out. There is a higher incidence of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and teens getting in trouble with the law in continued high conflict families.
What to Do to End the War
LTK: Is there any hope for co-parents who don't get along?
JB: Yes, they can go to a divorce coach who is a master communicator and learn how to communicate better, they can take the SPSP (Shared Parent Support Program). They can begin, perhaps in their own therapy or coaching, to look at the damage they are causing their children and learn how to have empathy for their children, for the other parent, and then how to put their children's needs first, which is to have two safe loving homes and not two warring parties as parents.
LTK: What are some ways for co-parents to deal with conflict?
JB: Take a step back and ask themselves, "How will this affect my child(ren)?" and respond from a place that minimizes the stress for the children. Learn how to communicate. Learn the value of co-parenting. Do the work necessary for the adults to grieve, to be angry, to let go of what caused the divorce and look at how to make this next phase in their family's life as respectful as possible.
When Nothing Works to End the Conflict
LTK: What if one co-parent is not willing to work on the co-parenting relationship?
JB: You can still take what I call the "high road." Get some help learning how to be on the high road even when the other parent is trying to drag you back down into the battlefield. Divorce coaches and therapists with expertise in high conflict divorce and reducing high conflict can be very helpful.
LTK: What are some ways to avoid high conflict situations?
JB: Take deep breaths, take timeouts - when you feel triggered by the other parent tell him, "Thank you for sharing your concerns." Share that what he said was serious and you want to give it some thought and get back to him. Hang up the phone, calm down and think about what alternatives you have that won't increase the stress. Also, sometimes e-mails when you can save it as a draft and edit it before you send later when you are calmer is a great strategy.
LTK: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JB: When in doubt, say nothing. When in doubt think about how much you love your children and decide upon a strategy that will not result in stress for your children. You are divorcing the other parent because you are "done" - or the other parent is done. Grieve the real loss of family in one home, grieve the loss of your dream family, get help if you are stuck in your grief process, and then let yourself move into "Acceptance of what precedes change." Accept that if you couldn't change him/her when you were married, you sure as heck can't now. Work with what is, have compassion for the other person's weaknesses instead of resenting them. Reframe your own attitude and enjoy your new life.