Parents who insist on custody battles and engaging in a high conflict divorce (HCD) expose their children to serious psychological harm. There’s no debating that. It’s the reason HCD should be avoided whenever possible.
Sometimes it isn’t possible. If your spouse suffers from a personality disorder or other intractable or untreated mental illness, or for some other reason is willing to put the children in harm’s way, you may well find yourself in HCD. And you may feel powerless to alleviate the suffering HCD will cause your children.
You are not powerless.
Here are 10 ways in which well-intentioned parents caught in HCD can lessen its impact upon their children.
1. Recognize and Deal with Signs of Distress in Your Children.
Watch for the following behavioral changes that may indicate anxiety, stress, insecurity, or depression in children:
Altered sleep or eating habits
Declining scholastic performance
Frequent, sudden or broad mood changes
Acting out with anger, aggression, or defiance
Withdrawal from family and friends
Lethargy or disinterest
Infantile or other regressive behavior
Excessive catering to parents, which may signal a child’s self-blame for the divorce
If you observe such behavior, contact a mental health professional. Also consider consulting with a divorce coach who can help you improve communication with your children, and your ability to care for them during your divorce.
2. Step AWAY from the Buttons!
Spouses in dysfunctional marriages know well how to expose each other’s vulnerabilities and provoke each other’s anger. Use that knowledge to avoid pushing your spouse’s buttons, because anything that increases parental conflict increases the prospects for harm to your kids.
Also use what you know about your quarrelsome co-parent to avoid confrontations. For example, limit the number of times you come face-to-face with your co-parent by arranging pick-ups and drop-offs of the kids at school or activities, rather than at your home. If that’s impractical, exchange the kids in a public place where arguments are less likely to occur or get out of hand, and where you can make a quick exit if necessary. During any encounters with your spouse be careful not to convey disrespect in front of the children either by words or body language.
3. Try to Resolve Your Divorce As Quickly As Possible.
You may not be able to speed your divorce along but you can avoid delaying it. Meet all court deadlines for producing documents and information, and make yourself available for court dates, meetings with the professionals involved, depositions, etc. The quicker your divorce is over, the better off your children will be.
4. Confirm Substantive Conversations with Your Ex.
It’s impossible to avoid all the problems a co-parent bent on creating havoc can create. But confirming conversations in writing can make it more difficult (and costly) for your ex to claim that he/she had no knowledge of a parenting schedule change, or that you failed to share notice of a teacher’s meeting. A quick email or text can avoid many such “misunderstandings,” and save your kids the additional conflict they generate.
5. Include Sufficient Details in Any Agreements You Reach.
Agreements on certain issues are possible in HCD. But vague and unspecific agreements are invitations to conflictive parents to create confusion, manipulate, and otherwise give vent to their need to fight. Able lawyers can draft agreement that can at least reduce those possibilities. If you can’t afford a lawyer to represent you, find out whether your state permits “unbundled” or “discrete task representation.” If so, you can retain a lawyer to perform limited, specific tasks such as drafting interim or final parenting agreements.
If no lawyers are involved, write out your agreement as clearly as you can and with enough detail to head off attempts to get around it. Use plain language rather than legal terms. Have your spouse sign a copy or confirm its accuracy via email or other writing.
6. Use Lawyers as Firemen.
If you and your spouse are represented by counsel, ask your lawyer to propose to your spouse’s lawyer ground rules that can reduce your children’s tension and avoid putting them in situations where they feel they must “take sides.” Such rules can include prohibitions on disparaging the other parent or using the kids as messengers, and methods to handle a parent or child’s unavailability for scheduled time together.
Again, your spouse may well try to evade or manipulate the rules to his/her advantage. But your spouse’s lawyer may now feel some responsibility to try to rein her client in. And whatever restraint the rules do cause, is a plus for your kids.
7. Plan Ahead to Control Discussions with Your Co-Parent.
Avoid additional conflict and enhance your chances of productive discussions by leaving as little to chance as possible during discussions with your co-parent.
Say, you are anticipating a conversation about whether your son should go out for his high school football team. Your spouse argues the virtues of discipline and teamwork, but you are concerned about evidence of concussive brain injuries suffered by high school football players.
First, clearly define the scope of the discussion to the here and now. That will help prevent it from deteriorating into a blame game of past injustices, real or imagined. Then take some time before the discussion to understand your spouse’s position. You may realize that your spouse is not just arguing to argue but genuinely believes that playing on the team would be good for your son.
During the discussion, use that understanding to help you deal with your spouse with empathy and respect. For example, you could concede the benefits of discipline and teamwork but suggest another sport that offers them without as much health risk.
Once the discussion has reached its conclusion or is no longer productive, end it politely but firmly.
8. Periodically Reassure Your Children
Tell your kids obvious things that bear repeating: that you love them, that the divorce is not in any way their fault, and that you will be there to help them through it. Revisit those themes as the divorce grinds on. It may sound corny, but those messages are critical to your children.
9. Keep Your Kids off the Battlefield.
Don’t argue in front of the kids. The more directly children experience their parents’ high conflict, the worse off they are.
Don’t complain about, disparage or mock your co-parent at the breakfast table, on Facebook, or anywhere else. That stuff increases the anxiety that causes lasting emotional harm to children. Beyond that, remember that your conduct is the model for how your children will handle difficult situations they may encounter when they become parents.
10. Never Say Die!
Don’t be overwhelmed by the obstacles to good parenting in HCD. Never give up trying to protect your children. If nothing else, acting in their interests under extremely trying circumstances will strengthen your position with the court. And you just might emerge from the fray a hero to your kids.
Judges and divorce professionals throughout the U.S. and abroad are using Larry Sarezky’s Telly Award winning short film, Talk to Strangers and its accompanying parents guide to keep parents away from high conflict divorce. For more, visit www.ChildCustodyFilm.com.
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