Kid feeling upset while parents argue in room. Couple arguing around child. Impact of family conflicts or divorce. Sad girl hugging teddybear

Even the most amicable family law matters are emotional and stressful for those involved. The most emotionally difficult cases often involve issues that have to do with the children, like child custody and parenting time. Many parents are able to negotiate responsibility for their children after a separation or divorce with the help of their attorneys or a mediator, and sometimes just on their own. This can happen when parents are focused on the same goal—their children’s well-being—even if they initially approach that goal differently.

If reaching an agreement with the other parent based on the children’s needs, instead of some other unrelated emotional goals, sounds like an impossible dream to you, you may be dealing with a high-conflict custody case. While almost every child custody case involves some disagreement and level of emotion, high-conflict cases take that to another level.

Not sure if your case qualifies as “high conflict?” Read on to learn more—as well as strategies for surviving and thriving during and after your custody matter.

What is a High-Conflict Custody Case?

While every child custody matter has the potential for conflict, those deemed “high-conflict” have certain characteristics that set them apart, including:

  • Regular and prolonged disagreement and conflict between parents
  • Inability to communicate effectively regarding issues that affect the child
  • Need for repeated court intervention to resolve conflict
  • Drawn-out legal battles
  • Mental health issues on the part of one or both parties, especially personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder
  • Substance abuse on the part of one or both parties
  • One or both parents badmouthing the other parent to the child
  • Involvement of multiple professionals, such as Child Protective Services workers, a guardian ad litem, or parenting coordinator

Not all of these factors need to be present for a custody matter to be considered “high-conflict,” but the presence of multiple factors strongly suggests that there is a high level of conflict and that the case will be a particularly challenging one.

One feature that is often present in the most high-conflict custody cases is a lack of focus (for one or both parties) on the best interests of the child. The case is about winning at all costs (whether those costs are financial or emotional) and regardless of the child’s well-being. If you are a parent who prioritizes your child’s needs, trying to co-parent with someone whose priority is making you suffer can feel like an insurmountable challenge.

Why Does It Matter if a Child Custody Case is High-Conflict?

High-conflict custody cases are stressful for everyone involved, especially the children whose lives are profoundly affected but who have no control over the situation. Children are deeply sensitive to conflict between their parents even when that conflict isn’t about them and when the parents are genuinely trying to reach resolution. When one parent is willing to use the children as pawns to get their way, the children may suffer even more. Indeed, the level of parental conflict is one of the most important factors in determining how children will fare after their parents separate.

Some of the signs of stress children may exhibit in high-conflict cases include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Obsessive worry
  • Academic difficulties
  • Behavioral challenges such as aggressiveness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Age regression
  • Sleep difficulties

It can be tempting to give the other parent what they want just to resolve the custody battle, but that may be worse for your children in the long run. It’s important to work with an attorney who can advocate for you and for your children’s best interests.

A Toolkit for High-Conflict Cases

If you are involved in a high-conflict custody case, there are a number of things that you can do to make it easier on yourself and to get the support you need.

Work with an Attorney Who is Experienced in High-Conflict Custody Cases

The first, and most important, thing you should do is to retain a family law litigator with experience in high-conflict cases. While the great majority of family law cases settle before a trial becomes necessary, high-conflict matters often do not. It is imperative that you have an attorney who is not only familiar with these cases, but capable of winning them in court. Knowing that your attorney is equipped to fight on your behalf relieves you of the need to constantly be on guard.

Get Counseling

You may be tempted to avoid therapy, lest a gaslighting spouse accuse you of being “the crazy one.” The truth is that everyone going through a divorce or custody matter can benefit from the insights and support therapy provides. Therapy gives you a new perspective on a situation you’re in the middle of and may not be able to see clearly, as well as tools to deal with that situation. Regardless of what the other parent in your case may say, therapy isn’t for the weak; it’s for the smart.

Take Advantage of Communication Tools

If interacting with your spouse or co-parent brings out the worst in you, minimize those interactions to the extent possible. Communicating through your attorneys is one way to do that; another is using online co-parenting tools or apps like Our Family Wizard. Not only do these tools allow you to avoid direct communication (and escalating conflict) with a difficult co–parent, they document and time-stamp communications, eliminating some of the “he said, she said” that often accompanies high-conflict cases.

Stay Off Social Media

Unfortunately, in a divorce or custody matter, anything you say on social media can make it into your case and in front of a judge’s eyes. You can’t delete existing posts; that could be construed as destroying or attempting to conceal evidence. The best thing you can do is avoid social media while your case is pending—and let your attorney know if your ex is badmouthing you online.

Use a Parenting Coordinator

A parenting coordinator may be useful in some high-conflict cases to help parents identify sources of conflict and work together better to meet their children’s needs.

Don’t Try to Navigate a High-Conflict Custody Case on Your Own

Especially if the other party is determined to escalate conflict in the case, it can be nearly impossible to successfully navigate a high-conflict case without support. Your family law attorney can provide some of that support, and connect you with other professionals as needed. To learn more about strategies for handling high-conflict custody cases, contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Child Custody