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Helping High Conflict Parents and Children in Family Courts

Part 4: New Ways for Families is one method to reduce conflict and teach skills.

Key points

  • New Ways for Families is a brief skills training method designed to help high conflict families resolve their own issues.
  • Learning and using skills for calming oneself, communicating over email, making proposals, and making decisions can reduce family conflicts.
  • When both parents learn the same practical skills before big divorce decisions are made, it can save time, money, and stress for all involved.

As explained in my prior three blog posts on family courts, parents with “high conflict” personalities tend to have Cluster B personality disorders or traits, which includes narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, and antisocial personalities. Many of those with these personalities have traits of domineeringness, vindictiveness, and intrusiveness, which are common in high conflict family court cases. This means that they often are preoccupied with blaming others, are very unlikely and unmotivated to change, and that their hostility and unpredictability can have harmful effects on their children.

With all of that said, can such parents and their children be helped? In this blog post, I explain one approach to helping such families called New Ways for Families.®

New Africa/Shutterstock
Source: New Africa/Shutterstock

Skills-Based Brief Counseling

I developed the New Ways for Families method of counseling for High Conflict Institute in 2009 after 15 years as a family lawyer preceded by 12 years as a family therapist. The idea is to reduce the conflict by having both parents court ordered into counseling to learn four big skills: managed emotions, flexible thinking, moderate behavior, and checking themselves, which they will also teach to their children.

By having both parents learn these skills: 1) no one needs to be identified as the “bad” parent; 2) this can be ordered early in a case (along with other temporary orders); and 3) they can work together better using the same skills. If only one parent is “high conflict,” the other parent will still benefit by learning the same system of email communication, making proposals and making decisions. If there are restraining orders, then the parents might not have direct contact, but they will be teaching their children the same skills.

Each of these big skills are taught with specific techniques, such as giving yourself encouraging statements, learning to make proposals and ask respectful questions about them, and writing BIFF Response® emails that are Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. There is a workbook for guiding the counseling and ensuring that clients are both learning and practicing the same skills.

Teaching these skills in a counseling format gives the client a chance to discuss and practice the skills in a supportive environment with lots of repetition. In the counseling format, there are six individual parent sessions for each parent with their own counselor, then three parent-child sessions for each parent with the children with a parent-child counselor.

After learning these skills, a majority of likely high conflict parents (in the eyes of their judge) have been able to make their decisions on their own and stay out of court. A study of this method can be found under New Ways for Families on our website.

Online Skills Training Class

The same four big skills (managed emotions, flexible thinking, moderate behavior, and checking yourself) can be taught to parents in an online program. While we originally thought that online parent education would miss the important element of interpersonal practice with a counselor, we have been pleased to see that many more parents can be reached with the same big skills in the online format because it involves various writing exercises, quizzes, and interesting video clips.

This 12-unit class (roughly 12 hours) can be accessed from anywhere in the world where there is internet service. Since it can be self-directed, any judge anywhere can order it and it can also be taken voluntarily by one or both parents. It can also be found on our website as indicated above. While this format of New Ways for Families does not involve parent-child counseling, there is an additional 4-unit class for parents who want ideas about how to teach their children the same four big skills.

Coaching With the Online Class

Over the past two years, we have added a third option of coaching with the online class, which is becoming a popular format because of the cost savings while having a live person to talk to (virtually, by phone, or in person). The most common arrangement is three coaching sessions, which limits the cost while giving an opportunity to discuss and practice the co-parenting skills the client has learned from the online class. This is appealing to judges who want more than an online class but want to keep the cost down for parents. We are currently talking with three court systems about using this format of Coaching with the Online Class. Again, people are also using this approach voluntarily.

Limitations

Of course, learning these skills does not change a person’s personality. But it can help a family stay out of court, save money, and reduce the stress on the children. While it is designed for high conflict situations (domestic violence, child alienation, families returning constantly to court), the skills can be useful and learned by any parent going through a separation or divorce, whether high conflict or not. There are a few cases that have been deemed inappropriate for this method because of such serious dysfunction of one parent, such as in cases of proven child sexual abuse.

At this point, it is primarily self-pay counseling, online class, or coaching. However, some court systems have gotten funding, arranged reduced fees, or have hired staff coaches to keep the costs down. The New Ways for Families method is based on cognitive-behavioral principles, including some of the skills-training theory of Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. However, the research on the New Ways for Families method is still limited to two small samples. Despite these limitations, we have trained counselors in over 30 cities and this method has been court-ordered in over a dozen family court systems.

Conclusion

Family courts are starting to realize that a significant number of their high conflict cases involve parents with personality disorders or traits. They understand that the traditional adversarial system of court is not a good place for most parents with these mental health problems. They get stuck in conflict and blame. While judges still need to resolve the most difficult and dangerous cases, the majority of high conflict families appear able to resolve their own cases when both parents learn the same practical skills and teach them to their children.

New Ways for Families is a method specifically structured to accomplish this. Until courts require parents to learn and practice conflict resolution skills before big decisions are made, many high conflict individuals will continue to fight for months or years because of personality problems that will never be resolved in court.

For more information on dealing with personality disorders in family court for individuals or professionals, see my following books: Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder; High Conflict People in Legal Disputes; Don't Alienate the Kids: Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce; and BIFF for CoParent Communication. For more information on New Ways for Families, go to our website.

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