Parenting is hard. Parenting through divorce is harder. And parenting when the other parent is high conflict is perhaps the pinnacle of hard. It can be soul destroying. But there are things you can do to protect your children, both now and into the future. Here are four parenting strategies to use when your ex is high conflict.
Acceptance is a vastly misunderstood concept. Does it mean being passive and allowing everything to happen around you? No. Does it mean taking the reality of a situation as your starting point? Yes.
Acceptance is about being willing to see the situation you’re in for what it is – with no wishful thinking, rose-tinted spectacles or excuses. And it is an absolutely vital part of your toolbox if your ex-spouse is high conflict.
If you don’t accept your situation, you’ll hold on to stories. Perhaps hopeful stories like, ‘Surely they won’t do that, they’ll put the children’s needs first…won’t they?’. Or perhaps harmful stories told by your ex-spouse, like ‘You’re a terrible parent, they always tell me how much they hate being at your house’.
Acceptance means you work with your situation as it is. It means you put away the idea you can ask or force your ex-spouse to start behaving better. That simply won’t work and just takes up energy.
Once you accept where you are, you can start to plan, not wish or hope. And that means you can act in the realm of what’s workable.
There are all sorts of situations that need acceptance. Some will be specific to your family. Others will be things like:
- Acceptance that they won’t follow your parenting lead
- Acceptance that they are likely to badmouth you in front of the children
- Acceptance that they won’t play fair financially.
So this strategy is a vital foundation for everything that follows. It’s the opposite of passive, it sets you up for wise action.
As children grow older, they do not need parents to fix everything for them. Newborns need that. But, even as babies, children are developing a sense of independence and their place in the world. School aged children don’t need you to swoop in and make everything right. They need help managing their own lives.
One way you can do this is by listening and validating. So often my clients tell me they try to problem solve with their teenagers, only for it to get thrown back in their faces. And this is because those teenagers don’t want solutions from you. They want to be heard. They want to feel respected enough to have space to work things out their way.
Knowing their other parent is high conflict, and therefore lacks empathy or compassion, is heartbreaking. You can’t control what happens to your children when they are there.
But you can validate their feelings. Don’t minimise feelings in your efforts to try and make things better. Don’t offer silver linings (at least not without properly listening first). That can feel like gaslighting, and gaslighting is something they’ll experience with their other parent.
Instead, sit with them. Show that you can see how hard it is. Ask them if they want help working through what to do next time, or whether they just want a safe space to vent.
Validating their feelings without running down their other parent is a tricky line to navigate. It’s not in your children’s best interests for you to trash your ex-spouse in front of them. But neither do you want to show support for any toxic parenting your children are reporting. The best way through this is to focus on behaviour: ‘How did it feel when he said that to you?’ rather than ‘Your dad is a terrible parent’.
Just as you can’t control your ex-spouse’s behaviour, there are limits to the extent you can control your children, especially as they get older. But you can influence them. You are a role model to your children, like it or not. You are their first teacher. And your time with them is your opportunity to be a positive role model.
Does this mean you have to be perfect all the time? No, of course not. We all have times when we overreact, we’re tired, or we snap. The important learning is what we do when we make mistakes.
If the other parent is high conflict, they will not be capable of admitting they’ve made a mistake. Everything will be someone else’s fault. Not only will this be draining for your children to witness, it will also be teaching them harmful lessons about mistakes being shameful.
If you mess up in front of your children, apologise and make amends. Then carry on without being steeped in guilt. This releases them to do the same.
If you feel worried about something, consider how you can share that with your children. You don’t want to over-burden them with adult responsibilities. But, if there are occasions where you can share something of your worries and how you are dealing with them, it gives your children both permission to have worries of their own, and strategies for how to deal with them.
High conflict people are chaotic. You never know quite where you stand; they are emotionally volatile and you can spend all your energy tiptoeing around them. Your job is to be a safe place for your children. And that means being consistent with boundaries.
Being consistent with boundaries doesn’t mean being excessively strict, or never being flexible. But it does mean being clear about appropriate behaviour, and following through on consequences. It means being clear with your children about bedtimes, rules about screentime, respecting each other and your belongings, and the myriad other things that go into family life.
Your children may loudly complain about boundaries, but they actually really want and need them. Boundaries show your children that they are held and safe, that they are cared for. Your nine year old might say they’d love it if they could stay up all night eating Monster Munch, but if you let them do it, chances are they’d be feeling dysregulated, exhausted and lonely by 1am. Compromising on the odd weekend late night but making sure they get enough sleep the rest of the time shows your children you care.
You are enough!
It’s double the parenting load when you are trying to compensate for the other parent’s inadequacies. Remember that you are enough, just as you are. Sometimes, though, you need a sounding board, a strategic partner. And that’s where I come in.
When it comes to high conflict divorce, you need expertise. Standard divorce coaches won’t cut it, untrained solicitors aren’t equipped. Vet your professional team carefully! Ask them about their knowledge and experience.
I am a High Conflict Diversion specialist, and have been for years. When it comes to high conflict divorce, I’ve seen it all. And, believe me, it’s a different ball game to amicable divorce. You need a completely different approach.
If you’re supporting your children through high conflict divorce, I want to help. Book in a free consultation today, and let’s do this together.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com