Find Mediators Near You:

5 Tips for Coping With Divorce And Child Custody With a High-Conflict Ex

From the Cerney Divorce Blog

‘Child Custody’ is becoming an outdated concept. The courts in our country have begun to recognize that awarding custody to one parent objectifies kids and leads to years of resentfulness on the other side. Many states now view and talk about parenting and child care to help families cope with divorce.

New guidelines in these states reflect the current research on kids of divorce. Basically,

  • kids fare best with access to both parents,
  • kids can adapt to new roles of each parent during and after divorce, and
  • the gender of a parent does not dictate that person’s ability to parent, their commitment to their children, or their role in the parenting of their children prior to the divorce.

Most important to note about how children cope with divorce – parental conflict is key to their adjustment during and after divorce. The more intense and frequent your conflict with the other parent around child-related issues like vacations, schools, extra-curricular activities, medical and religious decisions, the stronger the negative impact on your child.

High conflict between divorced parents creates the ‘negative effects of divorce’.

Though you don’t want to create unnecessary conflict with your ex, what can you do when you disagree with his or her parenting style or judgment? If you believe that he or she can have a negative effect on your child? Or, if the situation is reversed, and you are on the defensive about your parenting style and abilities?

Either side of this coin can lead to a drawn out legal battle. You and your ex may not agree on the components of a parenting plan. One of you may want to fight in court over these decisions.

Here are the components of a parenting plan, and some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Decision making – Joint (both of you) or Sole (individual parent)? You and your ex will either agree – or the court will decide – as to who will make child-related decisions after you divorce. How do you make joint decisions with a high-conflict co-parent?

These decisions are in the areas of:

  • Education – where will your child attend school, communication with the school, homework, supplies, attendance, emergency contact, calendaring events, parent residing in school district
  • Medical – scheduling routine appointments, communication with health care professionals, insurance, decisions about elective or specialized care, second opinions, emergency care, etc.
  • Religion – where your child may worship, religious education
  • Extra-curricular activities – selecting activities to enroll, terminating participation, communication with coaches, emergency contact, calendaring events

Just know that it will be difficult to get sole decision-making authority in these four areas.

Research shows that kids are better adjusted with both parents involved in decision-making. This research is based on fairly ‘average’ families, where conflict is also in the ‘average’ range. This is also easiest for the court – splitting things down the middle requires little thought.

Tip #1 – If you’re resentful about the divorce and want to hurt your ex by excluding him or her from parenting, it will backfire. Find another way to deal with your feelings, if you want what’s best for your child.
Tip #2 – If you truly have a high conflict ex,  Document, document, document.  If you have had great difficulty communicating with your ex, which has affected your ability to make decisions for your child, you want to show that co-parenting with him or her results in stalemate decision-making.
Tip #3 –When parents can’t agree, courts often ask who has been acting in this role for the last two years. Show evidence that you’ve been making decisions and taking care of business in all four areas.


  1. Shared parenting time. When you and your ex split, your child will be spending time with each of you in your two separate homes. Who is responsible for your child on which days and how many overnights?

If you and your ex can’t agree on a schedule for parenting your child, the court will give you one.

Research shows that kids do best when they have access and ongoing relationships with both parents. This research is also based on families where there are no extenuating circumstances, such as a parent with an addiction, a high conflict parent, or an abusive parent.

Generally, courts follow this research and like to see both parents have ‘generous’ amounts of parenting time.

What does this mean? Most likely, your child is going to spend a fair amount of time between your two homes.

In some states, the number of overnights a child spends in each parent’s home dictates how child support is calculated. The idea here is that, if a child is spending a significant amount of time in two homes, the funds needed to support him or her should also be allocated there.

So, rather than have one parent called “residential parent”, the child resides in both homes.

Tip #4 – If you are solely interested in coming up with a parenting schedule that either gives you that magic number of overnights or deprives your ex of reaching that magic number, your intentions will become obvious. Think about what works in terms of keeping your child’s life seamless. If your ex is more available for parenting than you during certain days or overnights, make them his or hers.
Tip #5 – If you have a high conflict ex, think about how you can minimize contact with him or her during transitions. Your child will be going back and forth between homes, and you can eliminate opportunities for conflict. Kids often start an overnight with one parent after school, so they go straight there at the end of the day.

When possible, work with a mediator, parenting planner, and/or child specialist to get these issues resolved outside of court. Even when you have two attorneys, it is possible to work with a parenting planner on your own to develop a plan for your divorce. My work with parents has been successful in getting their parenting plan completed outside of the court system.


Ann Cerney

Ann Cerney is the director of Cerney Divorce, a coaching and parenting mediation practice in the Chicago area. You can reach Ann for a private consultation to talk about how to create a child-centered divorce. MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Interview with Bruce Edwards – The Future of Mediation and Mediation in India

This is a new interview of Bruce Edwards by's Managing Editor, Dr. Clare Fowler. Mr. Edwards discusses the growth in the field of mediation generally and the growth of...

By Bruce Edwards

How to AVOID Conflict Gracefully

RiverHouse Press Blog by Ron Kraybill Sometimes when there’s a conflict, the best thing to do is say nothing and just drift away.  Or to say firmly, “Let’s not take...

By Ronald S. Kraybill

Legal Mediation News – November 2013

This is another in a series of updates on legal mediation news by News Editor, Keith Seat. See our related Newsletter Service for your clients and referral sources.Eighth Circuit...

By Keith Seat