CLINICAL BEST PRACTICES FOR HIGH-CONFLICT FAMILIES
By Lisa Foss, MA, LCMHCA
First, it is important to acknowledge the extremely difficult and stressful process parents go through in the separation, divorce, and custody process. Divorce is MOST often not a simple separation of two partners but rather an emotional ending of an intimate relationship, a legal change from married to single, a big financial shift from sharing funds to independent finances or the need to support two homes, ending of joint friendships and loss of support, and a shifting in parenting ideals.
Studies have identified factors that negatively impact a child’s adjustment in this process such as the loss of peer and other significant relationships, mental illness of one or both parents, high conflict between parents, being used as a pawn in response to frustration with other parent, re-partnering/remarriage, and decreased parental support. Research continues to demonstrate that the single most important factor for a child to thrive beyond the change that led to two homes is the ability of the adults in both homes to work together in the best interest of the child. The term best interest can also seem to be confusing as each parent is often using just their perspective on what defines “best interest.” Each parent needs to be willing to work through and let go of their own issues with the other parent and be able to differentiate between what they “think or feel” is best and focus on the needs of the child. Examples of cognitive distortions that parents may experience about the other parent that can create coparenting conflict include: “I feel nervous…therefore you are trying to intimidate me; I disagree with your parenting choice, so you are a bad or unsafe parent; I don’t feel like following the parenting plan…so I have to renege; I’m late because you are never on time; Why should I tell you our child’s game schedule, you never come anyway; This is now my house, not my child’s house.” Research has shown that unless there is a significant case for violence, abuse, or harm to a child, it is in the child’s best interest to have a relationship with both parents.
Custody issues bring up severe anxiety for parents. A parent needs to decide where their child(ren) will be on a day to day basis and can be filled with fears and anxiety that bring up defensive and aggressive behaviors when discussing how much time each parent gets and who has primary custody, etc. The language and terminology used may further increase anxiety in the custody decision making process. Some of the legal language used is a standard form of communicating for professionals in the field, but, as a parent, it can be upsetting to hear conversations about one parent having primary custody and another “only” having “visitation” with their child(ren). Being informed about the language we use as professionals can be helpful in the family’s decision making and adjustment process. For example, instead of asking who wants primary custody, it is better to ask, “Have you thought about what the schedule between your child’s two homes is going to look like?” Or “what is the current parenting arrangement?”
It is also in each child’s best interest to have a relationship with both parents’ families. While a parent’s intimate and legal relationship has ended, the child still has two families who can provide additional support and love and a continued sense of family. Additionally, the less coparenting conflict there is, the less stress and higher self-esteem a child can experience. Individual therapy for both parents is a recommended practice to help each parent separately process the stressful changes in their family that often brings anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, etc. During therapy, parents can identify the thoughts and behavior that may impact their coparenting. Parents can also learn ways to cope with their increase in stress.
At KKJ, we offer solutions for children, parents and families who are experiencing separation and divorce.
Check out our new website at https://kkjforensicpsychology.com/ for more information, call the office at 919-493-1975, or email email@example.com for more support.