Conflict Between Parents, Part 2: Strategies to Reduce Conflict

Family Law Column
In Part 1 of this article, I wrote about the effects conflict between parents can have on their children. In this part of the article, I’m going to talk about some steps parents can take to protect children from their conflict.

First, the bad news. Children are commonly negatively affected when their parents separate. Separation undermines their sense of stability and the security they feel in their relationship with their parents. Separation is associated with adverse outcomes like depression, anxiety, falling behind in school, delinquency, substance use and abuse and, for younger children, the temporary loss of important developmental milestones.

It’s probably obvious, but avoiding an ongoing sexual relationship with the other parent is also a good idea.

The likelihood that a child will experience one or more of these outcomes is influenced by their own resilience, their parents’ behaviour and the resources available to the child outside the home, including the presence of supportive adults at school and the availability of counselling. Conflict between parents is one of the more important of these factors and poorly managed conflict can increase both the chance that a child will experience an adverse outcome as well as the severity of any adverse outcomes that are experienced.

Now, the good news. There are a number of things that parents can do to protect children from conflict. Every step that protects children from conflict helps, no matter how small, even if it’s just one parent making the effort. Here are some easy things to do and not do, before we get into more challenging steps.

Do not:

  • Encourage, or fail to discourage, the child’s negative remarks about the other parent.
  • Ask the child questions that will test the child’s loyalty or put the child in a loyalty conflict – “would you rather come with me to the fair this weekend or go to your dad’s office while he works?”
  • Create a need for the child to conceal information or feelings.
  • Grill the child about activities, including meals and bedtimes, in the other parent’s house.
  • Badmouth the other parent to the child, or within the child’s hearing.
  • Talk about who is to blame for the separation.
  • Share details about the separation or what’s going on in court with the child.
  • Undermine the other parent’s authority.

Do:

  • Continue to be actively engaged in parenting the child and in the child’s life.
  • Listen and pay attention to the child’s thoughts and feelings about the separation, the child’s relationship with the other parent and your relationship with the other parent.
  • Encourage the child’s relationship with the other parent, including by keeping photographs of the other parent in the child’s bedroom and encouraging contact by telephone, text or Skype.
  • Help the child look forward to time with the other parent.
  • Maintain consistent rules between homes, especially if the child has special needs.
  • Use the same alternative caregivers and supports, especially if the child has special needs.
  • Be extra patient with the child.

Remember that your goal is to defuse, or at least decrease, conflict. The next step to try and take is about disengaging from the other parent. You may not be in a relationship with that parent any more, but love and anger are both very strong emotions and signify a continuing attachment to the other parent. Your goal should be to reach a more business-like relationship with the other parent. If you can get there – and it’s really worth trying – you’ll take arguments less personally, you’ll react to problems less explosively and you’ll be able to have calmer discussions about difficult topics. Tips to help you disengage and reach that more neutral relationship include:

  • Setting and following clear personal boundaries – “I won’t talk with you when you’re yelling” or “please don’t call after 10pm.”
  • Setting and following clear ground rules about the children – “we won’t use the children as messengers” or “we won’t criticize each other to the children.”
  • Working out and following parenting plans that are clear and unambiguous.
  • Accepting that there are things about the other parent that you cannot change and are just part of who that parent is.
  • Stop dwelling on the past, especially on old arguments and old complaints. You can’t change the past; all you can change is the present.
  • Remembering that you are predisposed to interpret the other parent’s words and actions in a negative light.

It’s probably obvious, but avoiding an ongoing sexual relationship with the other parent is also a good idea.

Improving your coping strategies can also help reduce the intensity of the emotional climate between you and your ex. Strategies that don’t work include:

  • Going to war on every problem, no matter how small. Pick your battles!
  • Withdrawing and refusing to talk to the other parent. That doesn’t help anything.
  • Trash-talking the other parent to anyone who will listen, including mutual friends, coworkers and Facebook.
  • Making false or inflated complaints to the police, child protection, employers and regulators.

Some strategies that might improve things include:

  • Focusing on the problem at hand, not the other parent.
  • Being aware of your triggers, and when the other parent is triggering you.
  • Ignoring small and unimportant problems.
  • Not replying to insults and attacks. You’re bigger than that.
  • Modeling the sort of behaviour you want your ex to adopt.
  • Improving how you communicate with your ex.

Remember that your goal is to defuse, or at least decrease, conflict. Good coping strategies also help dampen your emotional reaction to conflict and to the other parent, and that’s good for your wellbeing too.

Improving how you communicate, however, is much easier said than done. You may have to unlearn some bad habits and work on developing some good habits that may at first may feel awkward and unnatural. Before getting into some positive communication strategies, here are a few general guidelines:

  • Be informative and as brief as possible, without being impolite.
  • Use the communication tool – in person, over the telephone or by email or text – that’s best for you and best for the problem. Sometimes different conversations just work better in different media.
  • Do your best to be, and appear to be, emotionally disengaged.
  • Be positive, and avoid criticism and nit-picking

One easy communication strategy requires you to be alert to your use of pronouns. You often sounds nagging, blaming and accusatory, for example: “you didn’t work on her homework again,” “you didn’t book the doctor’s appointment” or “you make me furious!” It’s usually possible to express the same concern using I, which at least talks about your feelings and your reactions rather than the other parent’s misbehaviour: “I felt really embarrassed when the teacher called about the homework,” “I was upset that he missed the field trip because he didn’t get his checkup” or “I felt really angry when you said that.”

One easy communication strategy requires you to be alert to your use of pronouns.

Even better than I is we. We includes you and your ex. We suggests that a problem is a shared problem, encourages a team approach and is really useful when you need to get something done. For example: “how can we make sure her homework is completed in the future,” “why don’t we call the doctor and see if we can get an early appointment” or “I don’t want to feel angry, how can we talk about this differently?”

More complicated communication strategies involve active listening and looping, which I’ll talk about in the next and final part of this article. Active listening is a way of having a conversation in which you really listen to what the other parent is saying and go out of your way to confirm that you’ve understood the other parent. Active listening reduces conflict and is useful for any difficult conversation. Looping is a way of having a conversation in which you work with the other parent to more fully understand what he or she is saying. Looping can slow the conversation down, and usually calms high emotions in doing so.

 

Authors:

John-Paul Boyd
John-Paul Boyd
John-Paul Boyd presently serves as the director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, prior to which he practiced family law in Vancouver for fourteen years.
 


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