Parental Conflict & The Unheard Cry

How to really listen to the child in the middle of co-parenting conflict.

  ‘High conflict’ cases are increasingly referred to professional and independent third parties like me by the family court when divorcing parents are unable to agree on:

  • parenting
  • contact
  • shared parenting or
  • residency.

I am referred cases where there are allegations of domestic violence and/or coercive control.

Children’s Services often refer in cases where there are children registered as a child in need due to suspected emotional abuse due to parental ‘high conflict’. In these cases Children’s Services want to give the  ‘high conflict’ co-parents every opportunity to avail of child-centric systemic co-parenting    family therapy to try to resolve their conflict in the best interests of the emotional health and wellbeing of their children now and into the future.

Parents in ‘high conflict’ make up half of the therapeutic referrals I receive as an expert witness for court ordered systemic co-parenting family therapy. Half!

I have written a blog on parental alienation but I have not defined one of the other groups of co-parents I offer child-focussed systemic co-parenting family therapy to.

There are many differences between conflict, high conflict and domestic violence and there are variations in levels of conflict from low to medium to high conflict.

Low level conflict is usually  issue focussed. Parents may have differences about issues but in the main they are able to be psychologically minded enough to negotiate a solution.

Medium levels of conflict concern conflict each of the parents may have related to their own parenting in their own family. Often co-parents are easily triggered into a high level of reactivity and blaming.

‘High conflict’ can be described as having a more long term ‘chronic quality’ with a ‘high degree of emotional reactivity, vilification and blaming’ (Weeks & Treat: 2001) and it’s common each co-parent fails to take responsibility for their parenting obligations or their own role in the conflict.

Conflict is a fact of life, it stems from difference. It is inevitable in all relationships and, if healthy, can be beneficial to compromising and resolving interpersonal issues between partners and parents.

Successful conflict-resolution problem-solving strategies can help parents or co-parents to understand how to communicate with each other better and resolve differences.

The term “high conflict” refers to the length of time and  the intensity of conflict which has deleterious effects on their relationship but in particular on children (Cummings & Davies: 1994).

In relation to domestic violence many of the characteristics cited in high conflict i.e. anger, jealousy, poor relationship adjustment, lack of an internalised model about how to resolve relationship conflict, and negative projections on to the other parent are frequently cited as resulting into an escalation into domestic violence. Tactics of fear, manipulation, humiliation, degradation, and domination towards a parent define abuse and domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a form of violence perpetrated on one co-parent by another co-parent and is based on power and control. It is essential to clarify if the co-parents are high conflict or there is domestic violence as domestic violence would be a contra-indication for suitability of child-focussed co-parenting family therapy.

In high conflict cases I undertake an assessment of each co-parent separately and then I meet with both co-parents together. The characteristics of high conflict systemic co-parenting family therapy include supporting each co-parent’s capacity to support the other co-parent for the child/children to have a meaningful relationship with a co-parent they are resisting having a relationship with due to the internal emotional pressures of ‘conflict loyalty’ in the face of the ongoing ‘high conflict’ between their co-parents.

Each co-parent is supported to recreate a post-divorce co-parenting relationship together so the child or children can internalise a supportive internal object relations structure so that he/she/they will be reassured by and feel secure and loved.

The goal is to facilitate the conditions necessary for each co-parent to reduce their investment in the ‘high conflict’ enough to turn their emotional and psychological energy into positive co-parenting rather than negativity towards the co-parent they are resisting.

Examples of some of the characteristics that are focussed on facilitating a reduction in high conflict communication include:

  • How to recognise the triggers that activate high conflict communication and how best to manage these.
  • Taking parental responsibility for each co-parent being right and wrong and moving from using the courtroom to the therapy room to understand both parents have their faults.
  • Facilitating the conditions to move away from ‘winning or losing’ as if one co-parent prevails no one has won, and the child becomes the victim and loses a meaningful relationships with both co-parents.
  • Supporting each co-parent to ‘listen’ to the other co-parent before fleeing into the usual reaction of fear, anger or upset by encouraging practice in choosing one reaction or the other and being responsible for this.
  • Discouraging filibustering where the point of the interaction in the communication is to state a position rather than actively listen.
  • Drawing attention to the avoidance of communication leading to expecting the other co-parent to have all the information necessary about what is happening with the child/children thereby fuelling disharmony and conflict.
  • Supporting co-parents to exchange ideas, facts and observations in a mutually respectful manner to enable them to carry out the business of effectively co-parenting.
  • Enabling co-parents to understand how they communicate through non-verbal signs which their child/children will be expert at assessing. These behaviour can remain infuriating and are often a trigger for antagonism.
  • Supporting a reduction in the habit of unilateral decision making by drawing attention to when this happens. Supporting both co-parents to consult with the other co-parent with regards to decisions affecting the child/children.
  • Recognising the ways in which each co-parent may be addicted to conflict and understanding each decision does not have to be a crisis.
  • Respectful and calm communication will not be the norm so encouraging the co-parents to respect silence and reflective functioning (the capacity to understand ourselves and others as motivated by intentional mental states, such as feelings, desires, wishes, goals and attitudes) or mentalizing capacity (an essential capacity to negotiate the social world) and co-parental reflective functioning (refers to the co-parent’s capacity to reflect upon his/her own internal mental experiences as well as those of the child). Facilitating a focuss on the needs of their child/children as opposed to their need to expend energy in conflict. Co-parental reflective function is assumed to play a significant role fostering the development of a child’s own capacity for mentalizing and in turn is important for the development of emotional regulation, a sense of agency and secure attachment relationships.
  • Supporting with understanding and managing anger. Understanding anger can be expressed as hostility or aggression, anger can be kept inside, anger can be expressed indirectly through behaviour, anger can be translated into assertive communication.
  • Helping both co-parents to prevent their anger from getting in the way of solving problems and finding solutions. Encouraging each co-parent to take their time, listen and listen again, ask if they can be patient and let the other co-parent finish speaking before they speak, speaking to each other is a respectful tone of voice.
  • Reminding that the past is the past and the task is not to resolve the former ‘spouse’ relationship as it’s unhelpful to rehash old issues and open the wounds of old hurts.
  • Focus should be on the co-parenting relationship in the here and now and strategies for managing feelings in interactions with the other co-parent.
  • Supporting to avoid communications that are too long as each co-parent is hypervigilant and sensitive to picking up on every nuance. If there is too much talking there is more likelihood the other co-parent may misinterpret, feel neglected, hurt or attacked.
  • Creating the facilitative conditions necessary to support the development of a robust therapeutic frame so both co-parents can put down their invisible shields and swords and can start to take co-parenting responsibility for their own emotional reactions.
  • Understanding the effective communication is a subjective experience and our own perceptions and biases can distort the communication we are given. High levels of stress, anger and conflict can add further to this distortion.
  • Encouragement will be offered to keeping it simple using short sentences with non-inflammatory language to communicate specific messages.
  • Helping co-parents to concentrate on just one or two goals of the co-parenting rules they will have agreed in the beginning, through the provision of ‘conditions for successful co-parenting’ self-questionnaire. This will avoid getting side tracked and wandering into pointless discussions and possible causing arguments.
  • Supporting co-parents to understand and spend time focussing on the other co-parent’s point of view and their significant message, as they love the child/children too.
  • Taking the risk of saying you are in doubt about something and checking it out with the other co-parent. Encourage both co-parents to ask for clarification and not assume they know what the other co-parent means as this activates conflict.
  • Support co-parents to be mindful and aware of their own non-verbal communication. When it is observed when a co-parent communicates or exhibits hostility or disregard, draw attention to this as a negative communication. Support each co-parent to understand that if unattended this type pf exchange to can lead to a deterioration in the communication process. Focus should be on:
  • Resolving conflict and learning and practising different ways to communicate.
  • Provision of guidelines for effective communication.
  • Respectful communication with the other co-parent because each co-parent loves their child/children and care about their future.
  • Clarifying each co-parent understands the purpose of the communication when the co-parents go off track.
  • Supporting the co-parents to keep their egos out of it.
  • Guiding co-parents and steering them away from arguing when the need arises.
  • Encouraging the co-parents to avoid remarks that are provocative in nature.
  • Politely intervene when appropriate to terminate conflictual interaction.
  • Encourage and support co-parents to apologise freely.
  • Help co-parents to look for something they can agree on.
  • Enable the communication to steer towards a search for a partial solution.

During the continuous assessment process attention is paid to pervasive negative co-parenting    interactions such as:

  • A rapid escalation into conflict that fractures communication that did not begin with conflict.
  • Defensive interactions characterised by defensiveness, self-protection, withdrawal, and stonewalling to control the other co-parent.
  • Aggression which takes the form of attacks that are person-focussed rather than issue-focussed and can be unprovoked and offensive.
  • Escalation which is communicated by lack of empathy, reactivity, emotional reactivity leading to a cycle of attack and counter-attack. This is associated with a general risk of emotional and or physical abuse.
  • Observing, capturing and describing negative projections and dualistic thinking when a co-parent who is a part of the co-parental conflict holds negative associations which have reduced but are easily activated.
  • Reducing the conditions of strong negative affect where hostility, anger and unresolved conflict between the co-parents dominates over and above putting their child/children at the heart of the process in the child focussed systemic co-parenting family therapy sessions.
  • Facilitating a lessening of emotional reactivity where co-parents are highly emotional as this often escalates the need to vilify each other.
  • Clarify that blame, emotional reactivity and co-parent’s inability to take any responsibility for any part of the problem continues to contribute toward an emotional co-parenting climate of antagonism, hopelessness and alienation fuelled by the need for revenge leaving the child/children continually emotionally harmed by being stuck in the middle.
  • Where lack of emotional safety has been an issue within the evolving co-parental family system address how to support the co-parent/s who feel unsafe.
  • Provide information as to how ongoing co-parental fighting supported by splits in loyalty in the wider extended family systems creates an unstable and insecure familial emotional environment for a child/children as they have nowhere emotionally to feel safe and contained to land.

It is important to retain optimism in building a co-parenting alliance towards an effective co-parenting relationship. It should not be underestimated how much time, attention and energy it will take to build an effective co-parenting alliance and relations after years of no co-parenting. The key lies in recognising each co-parent has to work together and the skills gained as described above are essential to this process.

Each co-parent needs to listen, speak, compromise and make decisions in the best interests of their child/children in a timely manner.

Co-parents will be supported to shift from their own needs and anger and need to retaliate to placing their child/children at the heart of the process. Co-parents will be encouraged to stop seeing the other co-parent as the problem and will need to take a hard look at their own commitment to the co-parenting relationship.

Successful outcomes include:

  • Less litigation and legal involvement
  • Cordiality and civility in co-parenting interactions
  • Practising regular nonconflictual communications
  • Ability to attend their child/children’s events together without overt hostility
  • Making cooperative decision making on essential issues
  • Making cooperative decision making on routine issues
  • Demonstrating flexibility in changing plans particularly with an adolescent
  • Supporting and helping the other co-parent when this is appropriate
  • Happier children

There are a number of jointly agreed rules of engagement derived from the ‘conditions for successful co-parenting:

  1. Co-parents to treat each other with respect at all times
  2. Agree not to use condescending or derogatory terms in co-parenting interactions with each other
  3. Agreeing that the child’s/children’s needs are more important than the co-parents own needs
  4. Agreeing to respect the other co-parent’s time with the child/children and not interfering with the contact arrangements
  5. Respecting each other’s co-parenting style and when there are concerns exploring this in the systemic co-parenting family therapy sessions
  6. No areas of potential conflict to be discussed in front of the child/children
  7. Agreement to follow the child arrangements order and to be on time
  8. Any changes to contact time to be discussed with the other co-parent first prior to informing the child/children, even when the child/children have requested this
  9. Not to say anything negative about the other co-parent in front of the child/children
  10. Committing to not placing the child/children in any loyalty conflict and not encouraging the child/children overtly or subtly to take a side against the other co-parent

The interactions between any high conflict co-parents are moment to moment and it is not helpful to illumine all the positive or all the negative interactions as this can potentially be used in litigation to feed the conflict and will undermine building on any positive movements forward.

In addition to this and specific to any recommendations I might make there is a need to work on how both co-parents working together can ameliorate a child’s or children’s reluctance to enjoy a meaningful relationship with their mother or their father. The systemic co-parenting family therapy supports the co-parent who the child/children live with to change the family narrative about the co-parent who is resisted. The favoured co-parent will be encouraged and supported to take a lead role in deconstructing a family narrative which validates the perception of the other co-parent as not a parent the child/children should have a relationship with.

This can involve meeting with members of the maternal or paternal extended family to ensure they understand their tacit contribution to the process and they are supportive of the same family narrative as the child’s/ children’s co-parents.

In my opinion a distorted family narrative often has the power to influence a child/children to unjustifiably continue to make other accusations and to seek to find ways to reduce a child/children spending time with one of their co-parents.

Importantly, a child/children should not be burdened with the decision making in an age inappropriate way when they are too immature to understand the full implications of any resistance to engaging in a meaningful relationship with their resisted parent.

Many of the children, young people and adolescents referred to me for child focussed separated child therapy meet the criteria for CARPD (child affected by parental relationship distress). A child/children are often affected by the ongoing conflict between their co-parents, which has results in them forming an enmeshed relation with one co-parent at risk of moving more towards continuing to reject another co-parent.

One of the focus areas of the systemic co-parenting family therapy session’s is on the impaired relationship the child/children have with the resisted co-parent. This ‘parental child-relational problem’, often results in the child/children having distorted beliefs about a resisted co-parent and is emotionally harmful. Because the co-parental conflict may have been persistent for so long, the child/children, remains at risk of suffering further emotional harm due to being caught into the dysfunctional post separation family dynamics unsupported and a non-existent co-parenting relationship. In is within and between these parameters further systemic co-parenting family therapy sessions focus on the behaviours supporting the relational frame the child/children are caught into. 

There are usually a complex range of background factors relating to a child’s/children’s positioning in the middle and in between the co-parenting dynamics.  Supporting both co-parents to understand the contribution of these influences and the role they both play in changing their own sphere of influence in the best interests of the child, constitutes a vital part of the work.

The dynamic must change. People using the same tactics that embroiled the child in the conflict in the first place is a more common scenario than people realise, and it’s deeply saddening as the negativity echoes down through generations.

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