Climbing Out Of The Vortex: A New Option For High Conflict Parents
Separated parents who experience chronic conflict in their relationship often feel caught in a vortex from which there is no escape.
We generally use the term “high conflict parents” to describe parents who:
experience conflict about many major and minor parenting issues long after they separate (more than two years);
engage in protracted court proceedings which involve multiple interim hearings, trials, appeals and variation applications;
receive multiple referrals for parenting assessments, voice of the child reports, psycho-educational assessments and individual or family counselling / therapy;
repeatedly contact the police to request enforcement of family court orders and / or to request that their coparent be charged with a variety of criminal offences;
repeatedly file reports with child protection agencies, making allegations of abuse, neglect and alienation against their coparent;
repeatedly access medical and hospital resources with their children to gather evidence for court proceedings;
repeatedly place themselves on short-term or long-term disability leave or take unpaid leaves of absence from work because they are unable to function in the workplace due to the intensity of the conflict; and
have their own and their children’s lives consumed by the inter-parental conflict.
Over the past two decades, the family law and mental health communities have implemented a variety of measures to support high conflict families because we know how damaging it is for children to be exposed to conflict. The neuroscience relating to brain architecture and the impact that ongoing exposure to conflict has on children’s brain development is very persuasive. It is now beyond dispute that children who are exposed to long-term conflict are at much greater risk for serious behavioural problems, mental illness - particularly anxiety and depression, learning issues, sleep disorders and poor long-term health, including serious illness like heart disease and cancer.
We have created special court programs, giving high conflict families greater access to judicial resources and earlier court dates in an effort to have their cases resolved more expeditiously. We have created more supervised access programs, in part to shield children from the conflict that occurs at exchanges. Courts, lawyers and mental health professionals have dramatically increased referrals for high conflict parents to attend private dispute resolution processes such as arbitration and parenting coordination so that they have quicker access to third parties who make decisions for their children because the court system is so backlogged that it doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate the number of families who need decisions made for them.
While all of these efforts are laudable, for the most part, they are bandaid solutions that don’t work in the long-term. We continue to see a growing number of families who are just plain stuck. They are spending all of their income and savings to fight. It is not financially sustainable for so many families to keep an arbitrator or a parenting coordinator on retainer over an extended period of time to make decisions for them. The greatest impact of both the ongoing conflict and the family’s financial deterioration is experienced by the children.
What is most interesting about all of these structures and dispute resolution processes is that the two main underlying assumptions in each of them are: (1) the parents themselves are incapable of resolving their conflict; and (2) the parents require other people like judges and arbitrators to make decisions about their children for them. To some extent, in our effort to help high conflict parents, we may have been working at the wrong end of the problem. We have been stoking fear and sustaining dependency rather than oxygenating individual power.
Perhaps as an alternative to creating more forums and structures through which high conflict parents can access third-party decision-makers, we should be teaching parents the skills they need to manage their own conflict and raise their children without having to rely on third-party decision-makers every time they have a dispute. We can empower parents by teaching them. There will always be high conflict parents who do not have either the inclination or capacity to change their behaviour for any number of reasons. We may in fact be unable to influence this group at all. I believe that group to be relatively small. Most people, including high conflict parents, have far more capacity than we give them credit for. Nobody likes living in the vortex.
Beyond Conflict: Become a Coparenting Team is a US-based program designed for high conflict parents. I am excited and proud to co-teach this program in Ottawa with Dr. Phil Ritchie.
Parents will learn about brain development and just how much they can influence healthy brain development in their children. They will learn and practice how to identify their own emotions and increase their awareness of how their own emotional temperature dictates so much of what they say and do in their interactions with their coparent. Parents will also learn and apply skills to regulate their own emotions.
Parents will learn about unconscious bias and how it influences the assumptions that we make in our daily interactions with others. They will gain insight into how those assumptions escalate conflict. Parents will learn and practice effective listening and communication skills and practice mindfulness.
When high conflict parents have the right tools available to them, they are able to think more clearly and become less reactive to each other. When they learn to communicate more effectively and in a structured way and are given the opportunity to practice new skills in a supportive environment, some of their fear and discomfort will dissipate. When parents are calmer and feel more empowered, they feel less controlled and overwhelmed. Over time, as they implement small changes and build better infrastructure in their relationship, the greatest impact is experienced by their children. Not all separated parents will necessarily become cooperative coparents, however, the vast majority of high conflict parents are, at a minimum, able to move from conflicted coparenting to at least parallel coparenting. That’s huge progress.
**Parents are individually screened before being accepted into the program.
Access to justice has become one of our most important and challenging social and political issues. The average family cannot afford to pay lawyers, mediators, arbitrators or parenting coordinators endless sums of money to advocate, facilitate their discussions and make parenting decisions on their behalf. Eventually, money runs out and parents find themselves without all of the resources on which they have often become entirely dependent.
At the end of the day, barring unusual circumstances, parents should be making decisions about their own children. It is a responsibility of parenthood. If parents don’t have the necessary skills to manage their conflict, it is crucial that we focus on teaching those skills rather than picking up the pieces at the other end.