How to protect your children in a high conflict divorce


date published

13th November 2021

written by

Emma Heptonstall Image

date published

13th November 2021

Divorcing a high conflict personality brings a whole load of additional stress and challenge to the divorce process. And if you’re a parent, your children’s welfare will be top of your list of worries. In How to protect your children in a high conflict divorce we examine the additional issues you might face during a high conflict divorce, and what you can do to protect yourself and your children.


High conflict divorce – what about the children?

Any divorce will impact the children involved. It’s a big change to their lives, as well as yours and your ex-spouse’s. How will your children react when you decide to separate? It’s hard to predict. For some children there’s actually a sense of relief: if they weren’t happy at home and they witnessed a lot of rowing, the decision to separate may bring some peace. Others might feel anger, sadness or guilt. All of which are normal responses to a difficult situation. You can read more about supporting your child’s mental health during divorce here


A high conflict divorce brings additional stress for both you and your children. Even if you and your soon-to-be-ex can’t stand each other, in standard divorces you can often agree to set your differences aside to ensure the children’s welfare comes first. When it comes to people with narcissistic and other personality traits you can’t be sure this will happen. 


A high conflict personality type is generally unable to see the world from other people’s perspectives. Empathy is not in their skill set. Their viewpoint and their needs are all that matter. This means they often view divorce through a win/lose lens. Either they are calling the shots and ‘winning’. Or you are. So where do the children fit within all this? Here are three main ways high conflict parents may affect their children.


Pawns in a power game

Narcissistic and other high conflict personalities often deploy their children as resources to cause you pain. Remember high conflict personalities love conflict (the clue’s in the name!) so they will challenge every suggestion at every turn. Whether it’s about living arrangements, which school to attend, or who pays for the ballet classes, you’re likely to meet with a fight. 


So don’t expect your narcissistic ex-spouse to put the children’s needs first – however much they say they are. 


The ‘best’ parent

One of the ways they can win this divorce game is by making themselves popular with the children – and even turning them against you. All the legal, psychological and social care professionals agree that it is not in the children’s best interests for parents to bad mouth each other in front of the children. 


Will your narcissistic ex comply with this advice? Probably not. They will take every opportunity to show they are the best – whether it’s through showering your children with expensive gifts, or running you down in front of them. 


Made to cope with situations that aren’t in their best interests

One of the consequences of narcissists being the sun and stars of their own world is that they make decisions that suit them. Not those around them. So your children may end up in situations that aren’t based on their needs. It might be that your ex-spouse spends their weekends with the children meeting their own friends, rather than focussing on what the children will enjoy, for example. 


What can you do?

If you are concerned about how your ex-spouse is parenting the children you are not powerless. There are things you can do. Let’s start with the most extreme option…


Are there safeguarding issues? 

If you are concerned about the children’s safety, you are within your rights to withhold access. Your soon-to-be-ex will then need to apply to court for a child arrangement order, and the court will decide what’s in the best interests of the children.


Is this a decision to be taken lightly? Absolutely not. The court will not look kindly on you pressing this nuclear button without good reason. The court system works from the basis that it is usually in the children’s best interests to have a relationship with both parents. So you will need to be able to evidence that the children’s safety is at risk. 


Establish parallel parenting 

In ideal circumstances, you and your ex-spouse will be collaborative co-parents. You will produce a parenting plan which sets out the approach you will both take to all aspects of your child’s life – such as discipline techniques, bedtimes, food etc. Even though the children will spend time in both households there will be some consistency around how things are done. 


In a high conflict situation, all collaborative options are off the table, including those relating to parenting. Instead, you and the other parent will need to engage in parallel parenting. There will be one set of rules when the children are with you, and another when they are not. It might be infuriating if the children have a 7pm bedtime with you, but stay up late when they’re with their other parent (especially if they are then tired and grumpy when they’re back with you). But the only thing you have control over is ensuring the way you do things is meeting your children’s needs as best you can. 


Have a tight plan

If you go to court you will end up with a court-mandated arrangement. And with high conflict personalities, it’s often wise to get the professionals involved, to minimise the possibility of your soon-to-be-ex manipulating or bullying you. This plan will usually set out who has the children when, what happens at Christmas, and during school holidays, for example. 


If you don’t have a court order in place, try to get arrangements written down as clearly as possible so there is less wriggle room for your ex-spouse to create chaos. It is more likely for a high conflict personality to innocently claim they didn’t realise they were supposed to take the children to Tuesday night football than to just not show up when there’s an agreement in writing that it’s their responsibility.  Though, of course, the second scenario can happen too. 


Our Family Wizard is an app recommended (and sometimes ordered) by the court to manage communication about children between ex-partners. It is an unerasable record of what both you and your ex-spouse communicate, so it means there’s no room for misunderstanding. And using this app, rather than standard text or WhatsApp routes, to communicate means you can control when your ex-spouse ‘pops up’ in your life. If they only message you via Our Family Wizard then you won’t feel scared or nervous every time you get a WhatsApp notification. 


Work on resilience

So much narcissistic or high conflict behaviour can appear excusable or understandable. This is why withholding your children from their other parent is only recommended when there’s indisputable evidence of abuse or safety issues. But what if you are worried about your children and don’t have the evidence to keep them away?


It’s not ideal. Let’s get clear on that from the outset. The legal system only recently recognised coercive control as a crime. Things are changing, albeit slowly. So you need to work with the reality you have. And that means you need to help your children become resilient so they can get through time with their other parent unscathed. 


That means helping your child know that whatever happens, they are loved. That their worth isn’t determined by how much attention they get from their other parent. Help them name and label their emotions. Role model you making choices on your own terms, even when things get difficult. If they suffer from anxiety, give them practical tips like deep breathing to cope with feelings of panic and anxiety. 


And remember, your child’s experience of their other parent will not be your experience of their other parent. You might feel like a night in the pub when they were left to their own devices is deeply damaging. They might have experienced it as boring, or perhaps even liberating if they got to play on their tablet for hours! So in all of this, remember that your child’s experience and their mental health is the priority. 


Focus on warmth 

You can’t control what happens elsewhere. But you do get to set the tone when your children are at home. So let the main message be that your love is unconditional. Does that mean they can get away with whatever they like? No! In fact boundary-less parenting can feel neglectful. But it does mean you can let your children know that you’re there for them. Even when they’re rude, or untidy or mess up. 


You can have that sort of everyday extraordinary relationship with them that might not feel like anything special. The one where you know they don’t like twisty pasta but they love spaghetti. The one where you know which story will help them feel safe and calm. And the one where you listen when they’re communicating, rather than pushing forward your agenda. 


And in doing that, whatever’s going on in the rest of their life, they know they have sanctuary with you. Know that sometimes they’ll show they feel safe by being rude. But the fact they feel like they can is a gift in itself (though remember, it’s fine to call them out on it if they overstep!).


A group of women who get it

If you ever feel all at sea with your parenting when it comes to high conflict divorce, come and join us at The Absolute Academy. You won’t find a group of more supportive women. Not all will be experiencing high conflict divorce. Some definitely will. And high conflict or not, everyone in there has your back. Plus you get my advice as the UK’s only divorce coach trained as a High Conflict Diversion specialist. 


Come and join us today.

About Emma

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



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