Ending a marriage or a long-term relationship brings many adjustments, and former partners can find themselves in the middle of confusing and overwhelming conflict. When children are involved, finding ways to manage and keep conflict at a minimum are essential. Whether their parents are married, separating, divorcing, or divorced, children react negatively to poorly managed conflict.
Research has documented the impact of parental conflict on children. Children experience extreme stress when one parent hurts the other physically and/or emotionally, when the conflict is about them, or when there is verbal aggression. Children are also stressed by unresolved fights and use of the silent treatment.
Although not the intention of most parents, putting children in the middle of conflict is particularly detrimental. Examples of this are: asking children to carry messages between parents, grilling children about the other parent’s activities, telling children the other parent does not love them, and putting the other parent down in front of the children. Poorly managed conflict between parents increases children’s risk of behavior problems, depression, substance abuse and dependence, poor social skills, and poor academic performance.
Parents want the best for their children. Yet, high conflict can overshadow this desire and pull parents’ energy away from promoting their children’s best interests. Fortunately, there are approaches by which divorce professionals can help parents reduce conflict. Options include mediation, collaborative divorce, coparent counseling, and parenting coordination. Marriage and family therapists in your area may offer these services. The following can help you select the best professional for your family.
- Mediation is a short-term, structured process focused on building agreements regarding coparenting and/or financial issues. Former partners meet with an impartial person who helps them work through areas of disagreement until an agreement is reached. An agreement may be reviewed by attorneys if either or both partners wish. Some states require mediation if parents cannot agree on matters related to custody or parenting time. Agreements are filed with the court and subsequently become court orders.
- Different models of mediation exist. The most common is “facilitative mediation” in which an impartial third person helps a couple explore common interests, generate options, and make decisions toward a full agreement. The mediator does not control the content of the discussions, or make any decisions, but does facilitate the process, leaving the outcome completely up to the design of the former partners. This model operates on the assumptions of a rational problem-solving approach to divorce decisions.
- The goal of “transformative mediation” is to assist each partner to feel empowered and to recognize and respect the other’s perspective. The primary focus is on transforming how each partner sees the other; the secondary focus is on building an agreement. In the “evaluative mediation” model, the mediator, using background knowledge of acceptable outcomes to a divorce dispute, may offer ideas and options to the couple. In the “therapeutic mediation” model, the mediator encourages former partners to discuss the underlying emotional issues that may be fueling conflict and keeping them from negotiating an agreement. The “strategic mediation” model is a practical problem-solving approach that focuses on addressing hidden dimensions of conflict in order to move towards negotiating an agreement.
- Collaborative Divorce
- Collaborative divorce is an approach in which the divorcing couple and attorneys agree, by an explicit, written contract, to work toward a settlement without resorting to litigation, that is, without going to court. Each partner is represented by a specially-trained collaborative attorney who supports the client in negotiations. Attorneys clarify and present clients’ interests through cooperative problem-solving negotiation rather than through an adversarial approach. Clients commit to disclose all relevant information. If either or both clients decide to pursue litigation, both attorneys are automatically terminated and each client must hire new, litigation attorneys.
- Key to collaborative divorce is the use of other professionals, including marriage and family therapists, who are referred to as “coaches,” or “communication coaches.” The overarching goal of coaching is to help each partner manage the rollercoaster of feelings elicited by divorce and develop strategies for expressing concerns and making decisions during the divorce negotiations. At the point that the divorce negotiations are completed, the role of coach is over.
- Another role for mental health professionals, who specialize in working with children, is the role of the “Child Specialist.” The therapist in this specially trained role works directly with the children and gives them a voice through the divorce process, allowing them an opportunity to express their concerns and needs. The Child Specialist informs parents and attorneys of the unique perceptions and needs of each child that should be taken into account in creating a parenting plan. Again, when the divorce is completed, the Child Specialist’s role is over.
- Other professionals, such as financial planners, certified public accountants, and appraisers may be consulted and even attend 4-way meetings (meetings of the separating couple and the two collaborative attorneys) in order to supply information needed for negotiations.
- Co-parent Counseling
- When parents separate or divorce but continue to struggle with communication and making decisions with one another regarding their children, a mental health professional who has experience working with families post-divorce can help parents improve their communication skills and design strategies for preventing or reducing conflicts, such as helping parents agree on after-school activities, criteria for when to take a child to the doctor, a change in the parenting plan, or involvement of a new stepparent. This process may help parents resolve some of their anger or grief related to the ending of the relationship so that both can focus more fully on parenting issues.
- Parenting Coordination
- Parenting coordination assists former partners who cannot resolve disagreements and need intensive help with communicating about their children. The goal is to help parents follow their parenting plan, monitor compliance with the plan, help resolve conflicts about children in a timely manner, and protect and maintain a safe, healthy, and meaningful parent-child relationship. A parenting coordinator often serves as a go-between to keep conflict between parents to a minimum until they can interact in a business-like manner.
This text written by Karen Blaisure, PhD, and Donald T. Saposnek, PhD.
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