Is it really possible to Co-Parent with High Conflict Parents?

Written by Rochelle Long, MA, LMHC

Parenting children and adolescents with intact families where there are two parents in the same household is challenging as it is. Parents who are no longer together (or never were) and going through custody battles takes parenting their children to another layer of potential complications. The decisions being made about where the children will reside majority of the time, decision making, education, medical, extra curricular activities, vacations, holidays, child support and so much more is now consuming these families.

Majority of parents (approximately 80% depending on the research you read) going through child custody issues resolve their issues fairly quickly and move forward so they can begin their ‘new normal’ lives. These parents are able to resolve their issues and find ways to co-parent for the most part with some bumps along the way. This is absolutely the best for all parties involved especially for the children. Why can majority of parents figure this out and the other 20% of parents are unable to see past their own beliefs?

These other 20% of parents are considered to be high conflict custody cases plaguing the family law courts. These parents have difficulty seeing past their own beliefs, challenging to see the best interests of the children and most importantly keep fighting in court, spending enormous amounts of money attorneys, mental health professionals, parenting evaluators, court appointed evaluators (Guardian AdLitems), etc.

For the past 19 years I have worked with several hundred high conflict custody cases and have found there is no ‘co’ in co-parenting. Co-Parenting is when both parents are able to communicate effectively for the sake of their children, put their personal feelings aside and discuss what is best for the children. Co-Parents use the parenting plan as a guide, not the ‘bible’ nor do they threaten ‘contempt’ or ‘court’ with every email, text or communication. Of course co-parents have their disagreements, however, they learn ways to overcome these obstacles for the children’s sake. Parents who are considered ‘high conflict’ are incapable of co-parenting due to many reasons. However, if you break down the main reason high conflict parents are unable to effectively co-parent is the challenges of getting past their rigid beliefs about the other parent. Additionally, it may just be one parent creating the conflict and the other parent on the ‘defense’ trying to work with the difficult parent.

What can these parents who are on the defense do when trying to ‘reason’ with the difficult parent? Some professionals will say ‘nothing.’ Yet, I have found the following techniques to ‘help’ when going through these ugly custody battles and dealing with the difficult parent:

  • Do not respond to an email or text when the context is blaming, threatening, etc. If there is something that needs to be answered, ONLY answer what needs to be answered with no emotions attached…business only!
    Keep all emails and text messages brief, clear, concise as if you are responding to a business colleague. Stay on point and do not stray to other topics.
    Use the 24 (minimum) to 48 hour rule before responding to an email or text that needs attention, however is upsetting to you. If the email/text needs immediate response, wait as long as you can and then run it by a friend, family member, professional, etc. to make sure you are answering without any emotion. Write the context in word or another document so you can read an re-read your answer. Then copy and paste when you believe you have provided a brief, clear and concise (BCC) message.
    DO NOT PROVIDE MORE AMMUNITION THAT CAN AND WILL BR USED AGAINST YOU. Always be professional and use the BCC method.
    Document everything – keep your notes, documents, everything organized where you can easily find.
    Have an email account just for this parent so you have a reference point and can stay organized.
    Communicate only by email (sometimes text if need be). This keeps the emotions out of the communication and provides extra time to respond.
    Do not deviate from the parenting plan set in place (if there is one). If the other parent does, make sure to document – do not threaten the other parent. If you plan to take action, speak with your attorney and see the best plan of action. Court may not be the answer.
    Try to resolve the custody battle sooner than later. Go through arbitration rather than mediation. Try to avoid trial if you can.
    Keep focused on your children. DO NOT SPEAK NEGATIVE ABOUT THE PARENT “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
    Spend time with your children, laugh, have fun and be a parent to your children. Try not to focus on the ugly custody battle going on when you are around your children.
    Seek a professional counselor who is trained in this area to help keep you focused on what is important.
    Remember the difficult parent is doing whatever they can to make you look BAD…keep living your life, move forward and keep your personal life (such as dating) away from the children while going through this custody battle. You do not want the other parent to know anything about you. The difficult parent will question the children unfortunately so keep your focus on the kids. DO NOT QUESTION YOUR CHILDREN!
    When the kids ask hard questions, answer them age appropriate. Try to keep the courts out of your relationship with them except on a need to know basis such as if there is a court appointed evaluator (GAL, parent evaluator, etc.) and letting the children know what to expect (not what to say).

Again, these are simply guidelines I have used in my practice and have implemented in my model when working with high conflict families. These guidelines have appeared to help calm down the high emotions and sometimes assist parents in resolving their high conflict issues rather than running through the vicious cycle of going to court and feeling like you didn’t get anywhere. Taking the emotions out of the equation and treating the other parent as a business transaction may work in many of these cases. If anything, it helps one or both parents to keep their emotions in check when corresponding with the other parent.

Give this a try and let me know if this works in your situation or practice. Working with high conflict parents is already challenging, so assisting them with anything that may help is a positive in my opinion.

Written By Rochelle Long, MA, LMHC

Rochelle has years of experience working with high conflict families and helping them find what works for their family. She thinks outside the box and has helped many families settle out of court.

Published by longcounseling

Rochelle Long is a Licensed Mental Health Therapist, Divorce Coach, and Child Specialist specializing in individual, couples, children and adolescent, and family therapy, and maintains a private practice in Everett, Washington. Rochelle Long also works with youth, young adult, and adult athletes and provides mental fitness training to help the athlete find their inner strength and help build (or re-build) their self-esteem, goals, etc. Rochelle Long also works with families in conjunction with the athlete due to the high stress and demands placed on athletes today. With over fourteen years experience as a Licensed therapist and child specialist, and as a graduate of Sage University, Albany, NY specializing in Clinical Psychology, I am currently serving as a private practitioner working with a broad spectrum of clients. Among my areas of expertise are mental fitness training with athletes at all levels, depression and anxiety, eating issues/body image, divorce/separation/high conflict cases, parenting issues, co-parent counseling, children and adolescents, couples and family counseling. In addition to being a prominent family systems therapist, I also work with many high conflict cases and help many divorcing/separating couples resolve their differences without going to court. I believe we have the ability to work out differences when we can surpass our emotions and truly feel heard. I assist divorcing/separating couples deal with their emotional pain and help them work together collaboratively for what is best for their family. I help them get from "couple mode to parent mode." I also work as a Child Specialist and assist the children to have a "voice" about their parents divorce/separation. Additionally, I help families reconnect through "reunification" and "supervised visits" with the goal of reuniting children and families back together. I am also an interactive, solution-focused therapist, and cognitive behavioral therapist. This therapeutic approach is to provide support and practical feedback to help clients effectively address personal life challenges. I integrate complementary methodologies and techniques to offer a highly personalized approach tailored to each client. With compassion and understanding, I work with each individual to help them build on their strengths and attain the personal growth they are committed to accomplishing. Additionally, I work with athletes at all levels, from beginners to competing levels. Rochelle Long has extensive experience working with athletes and mental fitness training to help the athlete find their inner strengths, goals, and experiences to produce better performance and outcome both in the sport, and personally. She works with parents and families as well to help them understand the pressures placed on athletes today, and ways to encourage them from the 'sidelines' and not be the 'other coach.' Rochelle Long works with coaches to help them find ways to understand the mental component in sports, and techniques that will better help their athletes. I am a member with American Mental Health Association (AMHA), International Academy Collaborative Law (IACP), AFCC (Association of family and conciliation courts). King County Collaborative Law (KCCL), North Sound Collaborative Law, Mediation Services, Supervised Network (SN), ACSM, USAH, and Peak Performance.

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