What is a High Conflict Case

What is a High Conflict Case

Not all parental separations are alike. Not all parental separations have to be disastrous for the children. Social science research tells us that the biggest factor for poor developmental outcomes for children of separation/ divorce is the level of conflict between the parents.

Sometimes the level of conflict can be reduced. Sometimes the level of conflict simply has to be managed.

The amount of parental conflict mostly follows a continuum.  Picture a straight line with “amicable” or “very low conflict” on the left side, and “highest of conflict/ cannot communicate or be in the same area as the other parent” on the right side. The majority of separated parent situations fall somewhere between those two extremes.  Fortunately for children, the majority of cases tend to fall on the left side of center of this line, at least after the first few months of the separation/ divorce have passed.  If a case tends to fall on the right side of center, even after the first few months of separation and initial conflict, the relationship could be considered “high conflict”. 

High conflict does not usually mean that there was intimate partner (domestic) violence (IPV or DV) in the relationship.  The violence cases deserve to be considered a separate category and not lumped in with “high conflict” in general.    If IPV/ DV is present, with one person as the primary aggressor, then labeling that relationship as “high conflict” implies that both parties are at fault for the violence, and this may not be the case.  It’s best to think of cases involving IPV in an entirely separate category, to give those cases the protections and screenings which focus on violent relationships.

Low conflict separated parents typically hold little to no animosity towards each other. They can resolve their differences amicably and support each other when it comes to parenting decisions. These parents require little in terms of third party help. In the daycare or school setting, care providers and teachers may not even be aware the child’s parents had separated. These parents tend to discuss and try to agree on things like how much screen time the children can have, what bedtimes are best, and what extracurricular activities the children can be involved in.

Moderately conflicted parents may hold some level of anger or animosity towards each other. The parents may be at different stages of their emotional adjustment to the separation and may deal with their life changes at different speeds. The parents’ differences can escalate to conflict which may require the help of third parties to resolve. Those third parties can include lawyers, mediators, parenting coordinators, and counselors. Often with the help of a third party, their differences do get resolved and the parents follow their parenting arrangements.   These parents are good candidates for mediation and parenting coordination services to reach agreements about how the children will be raised.

In order to be in the high conflict category, one or both parents continues to show high levels of resentment, anger, or animosity towards the other even months after the separation (or months or years after divorce orders are entered).   The parents can’t speak to each other in a businesslike or normal tone.  Their communications show contempt for the other parent’s parenting abilities or the other parent’s relationship with the children.   Each thinks the other person is primarily or entirely at fault in the relationship, and each may think of himself/ herself as the victim.   Both parents will claim to have the children’s best interests at heart.   Respect for the other’s parenting abilities is usually absent and many communications involve insulting the other’s parenting abilities or lifestyle.   The other parent may be vilified as being selfish and putting his or her needs before those of the children.

Insults may involve child-care arrangements, daily routines, or the fact that one uses a 3rd party caregiver rather than caring for the child personally at all times.   The parent making the criticisms may emphasize that s/he always takes care of the children personally, never leaves the child with a third party, provides more nutritious meals and is better at caring for the child’s medical needs.

The high conflict parents feel most normal if conflict is ongoing; if one situation is resolved (by the court or a parenting coordinator), another issue pops up.   “Whack-a-mole” is often used by professionals who work with these families because the issues in dispute are so numerous.   The parents may seem unable to differentiate between a truly important issue (such as a child’s medical care) and a minor issue (such as the return of clothing or shoes, or minor exchange issues).

Children in high conflict situations tend to be caught in the middle. They are often used as go-betweens and they are often exposed to the parental animosity.   They know their parents argue about almost anything and may become afraid to say anything about the other parent or the other parent’s home for fear of starting a fight.   These children are at risk of developing behavioral and emotional issues that affect their day to day functioning.     Younger children may experience bedwetting or other toileting issues, may say they are sick more often, and may show aggression at school.

Interventions aimed at improving separated parents’ relationships will differ depending on the level of conflict.  The level of conflict also determines how much the parents should be encouraged to communicate and work together, as opposed to encouraging the parents to disengage from each other.   

While some people think all separated parents should get along and be in frequent contact about everything to do with their children, this isn’t always the case.    In a perfect world, frequent parent communication that results in collaboration would benefit children.   But sometimes the parent conflict is so intense that the likelihood of respectful communication (let alone collaboration) between the parents is so slim that encouraging parent communication is an exercise is futility. 

In those very high conflict cases, an increase in communication will only intensify the conflict.   With these high conflict parents, interventions should focus on disengagement.   Parent communication does not always need to be frequent and detailed. 

A main goal with high conflict parents is to structure a parenting plan that reduces the need for frequent and detailed parent communication.   The parenting plan/ court orders need to be detailed and somewhat rigid.  While some parents request “flexibility”, flexibility is generally not possible in high conflict situations, and flexibility (trying to change specific parenting plan details or keep things vague) creates more opportunities for conflict.    When clear, specific, and detailed parenting orders are in place, each parent is expected to independently exercise his and her parental judgment in raising the children during his and her own parenting time, with little or no input from the other parent.   The basic things that need to stay the same in both households — primarily the children’s school and medical care providers – are specifically stated in court orders, and neither parent is allowed to deviate from those basic requirements. But other aspects of the children’s lives, including extracurricular activities, homework procedures, nutrition, bedtimes, and access to electronic devices, may be different in each household.  While consistency in those areas might be the optimal, disengagement between the parents helps to to reduce the children’s exposure to parental conflict. That disengagement is most effectively done in high conflict cases by reducing the parent’s need to frequently communicate with each other.

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