If Your Ex Has These 5 Disturbing Traits, He's A High-Conflict Parent

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What Is High-Conflict Parenting? How To Protect Your Children Of Divorce From A Toxic Parent

Whether you are divorced or considering divorce, you’ve probably heard the dreaded catchphrase "high-conflict parents."

This is a term that lawyers, psychologists, and gossiping friends use to describe divorced parents who can’t or won’t put aside their animosities for the sake of their kids.

When parenting children of divorce, you need patience and understanding. But, if you, the parents, have personality traits that lead to constant fighting, there are negative impacts on the children.

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Let me begin by acknowledging that communicating about anything with an ex-spouse (or soon to be ex) can be challenging.

Okay, sometimes, it’s excruciating, especially in the early stages of separation and divorce.

Fights might be frequent. It only takes one parent in a couple to create the appearance of high-conflict parents. When both parents are high-conflict people, the drama is unstoppable.

Most of the conflict between divorcing parents — the most intense and frequent — occurs in the first year after separation or divorce.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Though it’s a tall order, the average parent stabilizes and begins to shape a "new normal" somewhere between a year or two following the breakup of a marriage.

The high-conflict parent is different. Each stage of uncoupling followed by rebuilding after divorce becomes an opportunity for them to fight with their ex, create chaos, and keep the flames of bitterness, blame, and vindictiveness alive.

Unfortunately, the conflict typically revolves around issues related to the kids, such as parenting schedules, extra-curricular activities, school activities, and so on.

If you are serious about protecting your children during and after your divorce, it’s time to evaluate whether you or your ex or both of you could be a high-conflict parent.

There are some key differences that set these folks apart from average hurt, angry, and exhausted divorcing or divorced parents.

What does a high conflict parent look like? Here are 5 signs to watch out for.

1. They tend to escalate and exacerbate conflict, rather than resolve it

Often, professionals believe that if we can help resolve the issue, the conflict will simmer down. Not so with the high-conflict parent.

It is not about the issue with this person. They are uncompromising and unforgiving of anyone who does not agree with their point of view.

Children sense this and are intimidated to speak their feelings or truth around these parents. This parent’s goal is to be viewed as "right," rather than to resolve issues.

2. They have difficulty managing their emotional reactions

This is the type of person who doesn’t regulate or recover after getting upset. It can take a very long time for them to get past any type of perceived or real slight.

People often feel like they are walking on eggshells around them. Sometimes the high-conflict parent uses their emotional dysregulation to keep people in line, including children.

The kids don’t want to ‘upset’ this parent. It’s a form of emotional control and intimidation.

3. They have a need to externalize all responsibility — and the ex-spouse is a handy target

This parent believes that nothing they do is a part of the issue. Any problems are attributed to other people, including the children.

They refuse to entertain the idea that their behavior may be playing a part. Therefore, it is ineffective to ask this parent to change his or her behavior.

4. They don't seem to have real compassion or empathy for others

Sometimes, they pretend to feel for others, but it is a cover-up. This is often camouflaged for a while during the marriage, usually until a crisis point.

These parents are often self-absorbed and unable to acknowledge other people’s pain. This, unfortunately, applies to the children as well.

Professionals can educate these parents about what’s best for the children, but they make decisions that are self-serving in the end.

5. They indulge in vindictiveness

This is probably the most damaging hallmark of the high conflict parent. They take pleasure in striking back at the ex, whom they perceive as having caused them hurt.

There is no regard for how this may affect the children. This parent will also strike out at the children if they feel rejected by them.

If you suspect your ex is a high conflict parent, what can you do?

Did you notice that all the hallmarks and personality traits of a high-conflict parent included damaging behavior toward the children?

In many cases, these parents don’t have the ability to isolate their dysfunction from their kids. In fact, kids by their very nature will do things that exacerbate the high-conflict parent during and after divorce.

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In order to preserve your own sanity and protect your children from a high conflict parent, you will want to do your best to follow these suggestions.

1. Do not engage the high-conflict parent in conflict

This sounds near impossible, I get it. You will absolutely not agree with all that this parent offers as "solutions."

In fact, some high-conflict parents will put out unworthy solutions just so that you appear to be uncooperative when you reject their ideas. You can reject ideas and offer alternative solutions, but do it — ideally — without engaging in conflict.

2. Maintain a professional attitude and demeanor with the high-conflict parent

Their goal will be, at times, to incite rage in you. You will be pushed to the limit on many, many occasions. Do not give in, cop an attitude, ignore, or call them any names, even if it’s deserved.

This is probably going to be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever had to do. But you can do it.

3. Share your situation with only close, trusted friends and family

You are not serving yourself to spread the word about how ridiculous the high-conflict parent is. However, you may find that they will create situations where it becomes necessary to inform people.

For example, if the high conflict parent creates chaos at your kiddo’s school (maybe changes your contact information with naive office staff), you will quietly and discreetly share with someone in charge about your situation.

4. Empathize with your children if they are on the receiving the craziness

It’s best to avoid joining with them in their misery.

"I know, they did something to me also…" is not soothing to them. Their sharing with you should be about them. They need you to be the parent who is grounded, safe, and who listens.

You can share with a trusted friend, therapist, or family member.

5. Maintain boundaries with the high-conflict parent

Do not give in on a limit that you have set with him or her. You may be reasonable, compromising, and flexible in all other areas of your life.

Do not think that being reasonable and flexible with the high conflict parent will earn you any reciprocity. This type of parent is not a prosocial kind of person. Stop expecting that to change.

Remember, you are setting precedents for the future. You must be consistent, firm, and business-like. Get connected to a good therapist, or divorce coach. You are going to need support and strategizing to maintain boundaries with the high conflict parent.

No matter the causes of divorce, you need to accept that life is not going to be smooth sailing if your ex is a high conflict parent. However, you can be instrumental in calming the tornadoes that this parent can create and avoid the negative effects of divorce on children.

Keep your own ship afloat and avoid indulging in reactivity or your own pity party. You will find that, as time goes on, the high conflict parent will become less interested in looking for ways to stir things up. They may be on to the next drama in life!

Fingers crossed!

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Ann Cerney is the director of Cerney Divorce, a coaching and parenting mediation practice in the Chicago area. You can reach Ann for a private consultation by e-mailing her.

This article was originally published at Cerney Divorce Coach. Reprinted with permission from the author.