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Are You and Your Ex “High Conflict Parents”? 5 Red Flags and What You Can Do

From Ann Cerney’s Divorce Coach Blog

Whether you are divorced or considering divorce, you’ve probably heard the dreaded catch phrase “high conflict parents”. This is a term that lawyers, psychologists, and gossiping friends use to describe divorced parents who can’t, or won’t, put aside animosities for the sake of their kids.

Let me begin by acknowledging that communicating about anything with an ex-spouse, or soon to be ex, can be challenging. Okay, sometimes, it’s excruciating. Especially in the early stages of separation and divorce.

It only takes one parent in a couple to create the appearance of “high conflict parents”. When both parents are high conflict people, the drama is unstoppable.

Most of the conflict between divorcing parents, the most intense and frequent, occurs in the first year after separation or divorce.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Though it’s a tall order, the average parent stabilizes and begins to shape a ‘new normal’ somewhere between a year or two following the breakup of a marriage.

The high conflict parent is different. Each stage of uncoupling, followed by rebuilding, after divorce becomes an opportunity for him or her to create chaos and keep the flames of bitterness, blame, and vindictiveness alive.

Unfortunately, the conflict typically revolves around issues related to the kids, such as parenting schedules, extra-curriculars, school activities, and so on.

If you are serious about protecting your children during and after your divorce, it’s time to evaluate whether you or your ex could be a “high conflict parent”. There are some key differences that set these folks apart from average hurt, angry, and exhausted divorcing or divorced parents.

What Makes A High Conflict Parent?

  1. The high conflict parent tends to escalate and exacerbate conflict, rather than resolve it. Often, professionals believe that if we can help resolve the issue, the conflict will simmer down. Not so with the high conflict parent. It is not about the issue with this person. He or she is uncompromising, and is unforgiving of anyone who does not agree with their point of view. Children sense this, and are intimidated to speak their feelings or truth around these parents. This parent’s goal is to be viewed as “right” rather than to resolve issues.
  2. The high conflict parent has difficulty managing his or her emotional reactions. This is a type of person who doesn’t regulate, or recover, after getting upset. It can take a very long time for them to get past any type of perceived or real slight. People often feel like they are walking on eggshells around them. Sometimes the high conflict parent uses his or her emotional dysregulation to keep people in line, including children. The kids don’t want to ‘upset’ this parent. It’s a form of emotional control and intimidation.
  3. The high conflict parent has a need to externalize all responsibility – and the ex-spouse is a handy target. This parent believes that nothing he or she does is a part of the issue. Any problems are attributed to other people, including the children. He or she refuses to entertain the idea that their behavior may be playing a part. Therefore, it is ineffective to ask this parent to change his or her behavior.
  4. The high conflict parent does not seem to have real compassion or empathy for others. Sometimes, he or she pretends to feel for others, but it is a cover up. This is often camouflaged for a while during the marriage, usually until a crisis point. These parents are often self-absorbed and unable to acknowledge other people’s pain. This unfortunately applies to the children as well. Professionals can educate these parents about what’s best for the children, but they make decisions that are self-serving in the end.
  5. The high conflict parent indulges in vindictiveness. This is probably the most damaging hallmark of the high conflict parent. He or she takes pleasure in striking back at the ex, whom they perceive as having caused them hurt. There is no regard for how this may affect the children. This parent will also strike out at the children, if he or she feels rejected by them.

If you suspect your ex is a high conflict parent, what can you do?

Did you notice that all 5 of the hallmarks of a high conflict parent included damaging behavior toward the children? In many cases, these parents don’t have the ability to isolate their dysfunction from their kids. In fact, kids by their very nature will do things that exacerbate the high conflict parent during and after divorce.

In order to preserve your own sanity, and protect your children from a high conflict parent, you will want to do your best to follow these suggestions:

  1. Do not, I repeat, do not engage the high conflict parent in conflict. This sounds near impossible, I get it. You will absolutely not agree with all that this parent offers as “solutions”. In fact, some high conflict parents will put out unworthy solutions just so that you appear to be uncooperative when you reject their ideas. You can reject ideas, offer alternative solutions, but do it – ideally – without engaging in conflict.
  2. Maintain a professional attitude and demeanor with the high conflict parent. His or her goal will be, at times, to incite rage in you. You will be pushed to the limit on many, many occasions. Do not give in, cop an attitude, ignore, or call them any names, even if it’s deserved. I know this is probably going to be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever had to do. But you can do it.
  3. Share your situation – that your ex is creating high conflict – with only close, trusted friends and family. You are not serving yourself to spread the word about how ridiculous the high conflict parent is. However, you may find that he or she will create situations where it becomes necessary to inform people. For example, if the high conflict parent creates chaos at your kiddo’s school (maybe changes your contact information with a naive office staff), you will quietly and discreetly share with someone in charge about your situation.
  4. Empathize with your children if they are on the receiving end of the high conflict parent’s craziness. It’s best to avoid joining with them in their misery. “I know, he or she did something to me also …” is not soothing to them. Their sharing with you should be about them. They need you to be the parent who is grounded, safe, and listening. You can share with a trusted friend, therapist, or family member.
  5. Maintain boundaries with the high conflict parent. Do not give in on a limit that you have set with him or her. You may be reasonable, compromising, flexible in all other areas of your life. Do not think that being reasonable and flexible with the high conflict parent will earn you any reciprocity. This type of parent is not a prosocial kind of person. Stop expecting that to change.

Remember, you are setting precedents for the future. You must be consistent, firm, and business-like. Get connected to a good therapist, or divorce coach. You are going to need support and strategizing to maintain boundaries with the high conflict parent.

Accept that life is not going to be smooth sailing if your ex is a high conflict parent. However, you can be instrumental in calming the tornadoes that this parent can create. Keep your own ship afloat, and avoid indulging in reactivity or your own pity party. You will find that, as time goes on, the high conflict parent will become less interested in looking for ways to stir things up. He or she may be on to the next drama in life! Fingers crossed …


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 >

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