Ten Ways You Can Ease the Impact of High Conflict Divorce on Your Children
By Larry Sarezky, Esq
Parents who engage in high-conflict divorce (HCD) expose their children to serious psychological harm. There’s no debating that. It’s the reason HCD should be avoided if at all possible.
Sometimes HCD can’t be avoided. 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 on the divorce battlefield, you may well find yourself in HCD. And you may feel powerless to alleviate your children’s suffering.
You are not powerless.
Discussed below you’ll notice that some of them require agreements between you and your co-parent. That might seem impossible to you. But limited agreements are not impossible in HCD. There are 2 reasons why:
1. Even the nastiest divorces are between two people who share at least some values that can be used to reach consensus on some issues.
2. Parents contesting custody can come under scrutiny by divorce professionals such as custody evaluators, children’s attorneys and guardians, parenting coordinators, and opposing counsel. Thus at some point, it behooves those parents to agree to things that are clearly in their children’s best interests.
For example, if your kids don’t yet know about the divorce, propose to your spouse that the two of you tell the children together in a calm, reassuring manner. Some chronically contentious spouses will agree to such a request because they see it as a way they will be able to “score points” with a judge.
Here are 10 ways in which a well-intentioned parent ensnared in HCD can lessen its impact upon the 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 to help you improve communication with your children and address their concerns about the divorce.
2. Reassure Your Children.
Tell your kids 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.
3. Keep Your Kids off the Battlefield.
Don’t argue in front of the kids. Don’t complain about their other 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.
4. Step Away From His/Her 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 the conflict increases the prospects for harm to your kids.
Use what you know about your spouse to avoid confrontations, and plan an escape route from those you can’t. For example, limit face-to-face encounters with your quarrelsome spouse by arranging pick-ups of the kids from school or extracurricular activities rather than from your home. If that’s not practical, 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.
5. Try to Resolve the Issues in Your Divorce As Quickly As Possible.
Make sure that you meet all deadlines for producing documents and information, and are available for court dates, meetings with the professionals involved, depositions, etc. The quicker your divorce is over, the better off your children will be.
6. Immediately Confirm in Writing Agreed Upon Deviations from Parenting Schedules or Other Arrangements You Make with Your Spouse.
You can’t avoid all problems caused by spouses bent on creating havoc. But confirming conversations in writing can make it more difficult or costly for your spouse to claim lack of knowledge of a 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 create. On-line co-parenting tools that include message boards like ourfamilywizard.com can be quite helpful as well.
7. Make Sure That Interim and Final Agreements Regarding Custody and Access Contain Sufficient Detail to Avoid Misunderstandings and Manipulation.
Agreements that lack sufficient detail are invitations for conflictive parents to create confusion, push vague boundaries and otherwise give vent to their need to fight. Able lawyers can at least reduce the possibilities for disputes and obstruction. If you can’t afford a lawyer to represent you, find out whether your state permits “unbundled” or “discrete task representation” by which you can hire one to perform limited, specific tasks such as drafting agreements.
8. 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.
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 rein her client in. And whatever restraint the rules do create, is a plus for your kids.
9. Plan Ahead to Control Discussions with Your Spouse.
Avoid additional conflict and enhance your chances of productive discussions by leaving as little to chance as possible when dealing with your high-conflict spouse.
Say you are anticipating a conversation about whether your son should go out for the high school football team. Your spouse argues the virtues of discipline and teamwork and discipline and you are concerned regarding mounting evidence of concussive brain injuries suffered by high school players.
First, make sure the scope of the discussion is clear. 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 your son would benefit from the experience.
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 so much health risk.
10. Never Say Die!
Don’t be overwhelmed by the obstacles to good parenting that high-conflict divorce will throw in your path. Never give up trying to protect your children. If nothing else, acting in your children’s interests under the most trying of circumstances can only strengthen your position with the court. And you just might emerge from the fray as a hero to your kids.
Larry Sarezky’s nationally acclaimed and Telly Award winning short film Talk to Strangers and its companion parent guide are being used by judges and divorce professionals throughout the U.S. and abroad to dissuade parents from battling over their children. For more on these uniquely powerful tools to protect your children, visit http://www.ChildCustodyFilm.com.
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