Family Therapy and Parenting Coordination to Reduce Conflict

Co-parenting Interventions in High Conflict Cases

Posted Nov 20, 2012

As discussed in my last posting, divorced high conflict couples can be helped, with therapeutic interventions such as divorce education, family therapy, family mediation, and parenting coordination, to separate their former marital hostilities from their ongoing parental responsibilities, and to achieve amicable co-parenting arrangements. Some parents will enter into a cooperative co-parenting routine, while others will fare better within a parallel parenting approach, where their direct contact with each other is limited. Yet others will require specialized intervention and ongoing support to shield their children from their ongoing conflict.

Children’s needs for protection from parental conflict must be addressed before the establishment of any co-parenting arrangement after separation, and a full range of supports must be made available to parents in high conflict situations. Within these programs, children’s needs become a means of connecting the parents in a positive direction at a time when conflict has divided them.

Post-divorce Family Therapy. Social institutional support for parents in the implementation of a co-parenting plan is critical, particularly for high-conflict cases where children may be caught in the middle of disputes between parents.

Of all the strategies that can be used by divorcing parents to reduce the harmful effects of divorce on their children, the most important is the development and maintenance of a cooperative co-parenting relationship. Children’s adjustment post-divorce in a long-term co-parenting arrangement is facilitated by a meaningful routine relationship with each parent; an absence of hostile comments about the other parent; consistent, safe, structured, and predictable caregiving environments without parenting disruptions; healthy, caring, low-conflict relationships with each parent; and parents’ emotional health and well being. Any model of long-term support for high-conflict divorced families should focus on these factors to produce positive outcomes for children and their parents.

It is particularly important that hostility between parents be minimized following divorce. Currently, in cases where there is ongoing litigation between parents, children are at greater risk of emotional damage than in less contentious circumstances; in many cases, divorce does not end marital conflict, but exacerbates it. It is important that parents help their children see the good qualities in each of their parents, and that parents work toward the development of positive relationships with each other. An effective support system is instrumental in providing parents with the necessary skills to deal with co-parenting challenges: the central tenets of this system should be to reduce conflict, assure physical security, provide adequate support services to reduce harm to children and to enable the family to manage its own affairs. In order for such a system to be successful, allied professionals need to be supportive of a model that helps resolve family disputes and focuses on the welfare of the children.

There are six key components of a longer-term co-parenting support model for high-conflict parents: (1) Whereas education on the impact of divorce on children both in the short- and long-term should be provided to parents prior to the development of a co-parenting plan, reinforcement and enhancement of pre-divorce education should take place in a structured format post-divorce; (2) In addition to negotiating a workable parenting plan that meets the needs of children and delineates the responsibilities of parents, monitoring the consistency of the caregiving environments post-divorce is critical; (3) Although direct contact between highly conflicted parents may not be strictly necessary in successful co-parenting, as parents can share parenting responsibilities within a parallel parenting arrangement, it seems clear that some form of intervention to mend the relationship between parents would contribute to the long-term success of the co-parenting arrangement. This intervention would focus on the development of positive interactions between family members, enhancing communication skills, developing a range of problem-solving skills, and enhancing non-aggressive negotiation skills; (4) Long-term counseling should be made available to children alone and to each parent and each child together during and after divorce; (5) Long-term success of co-parenting is achieved through emotional healing post-divorce. Measures should be taken to allow each member of the family to gain an increased understanding and acceptance of the divorce as time goes by; (6) Finally, regular reviews of the co-parenting plan at pre-specified periods are useful during the implementation of the plan. These reviews should take into consideration developmental changes in the children as well as structural changes in the family such as the introduction of a new partner and step-parent, relocation, and children’s changing developmental needs. These reviews should be conducted by a family mediator who can re-open the co-parenting plan for revision or modification as needed.

Parenting Coordination. A relatively new intervention for high conflict couples is that of parenting or dispute resolution coordination, which assists parents to settle post-divorce disputes, facilitates compliance with co-parenting plans and orders, and provides case management services, parent education, coaching, mediation, and arbitration of child-related conflicts as they arise. Although empirical evidence of the effectiveness of parenting coordination is just beginning to be obtained, initial research results are encouraging.

Parallel Parenting. For intractable high conflict situations, the option of parallel parenting exists, in which parents remain disengaged from each other, and may assume decision-making responsibility in different domains (such as one parent being responsible for medical decisions and the other for education). Parallel parenting protects children from parental conflict while protecting their relationships with both parents. Such arrangements call for a high degree of specificity in the initial parenting plan, pre-empting the need for parents to communicate directly once the plan is in place. Many parents achieve cooperative co-parenting from a place of initial disengagement.