Successful Transitions for High Conflict Families

High conflict families experiencing separation and divorce may find it difficult to think things through and be unable to separate themselves from the problem to logically solve it. This publication includes common distresses of changes to family structure on children, including parenting time, shared custody, and how respectful interactions can occur.

Cynthia R. Strasheim, Extension Educator

What is a High Conflict Family?

Most divorces involve some conflict and some unwillingness to solve problems together. For high conflict families experiencing separation and divorce, turmoil, anger, and playing emotional games may be a continuous part of every interaction between parents, whether children are present or not.

High conflict families can be angry about personal feelings, custody, property issues, or the speed (or lack of speed) to the final divorce or custody hearing. High conflict families solve problems with bitterness and anger — they react instead of respond to the situation. Reacting comes from the emotional part of us, while responding comes from the thinking part of us. High conflict families find it hard to think. They can’t separate from the problem long enough to solve it using logical skills. They just can’t find time to THINK! It is easier to go with the gut reaction and react with emotional outbursts that can be very detrimental to children.

Eighty percent of divorces do not involve prolonged high conflict, but conflict may be experienced during the transition of the children from one home to the other. For 20 percent of every 1,000 divorces that are high conflict, the legal separation or divorce is hard enough for children. However, the need to be on guard about conflict may be mentally and physically overwhelming.

Conflict may arise over the time for pick-up and return or what the child will or will not be doing while in the care of the other parent. Dr. Edward Teyber says that parenting time works best when it is frequent, regularly scheduled, and conflict free. When parents engage in conflict in front of children, it only increases confusion and fear. Children may withdraw from one or both parents to avoid being involved in further confrontations. This may mean that they don’t want to be with the noncustodial parent because it always causes a fight. On the other hand, they may become a part of the confrontation by trying to protect or show loyalty for the parent they see as most vulnerable.

The High Conflict Intervention Program in San Diego, Calif., suggests it takes approximately 72 hours for someone to calm down after a negative interaction, especially during the first two years after divorce. The release of the “flight or fight” response means adrenaline secretes for self-defense, putting all bodily functions on high alert. With continued conflict and confrontation, the secondary stress hormone, cortisol, begins to pump into the body already on “high alert” for personal protection and increases rapid breathing, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Protecting your health and the health of your child is a good reason to avoid conflict.

If there is a face-to-face exchange with conflict on Friday and on Sunday night transitions, and then again in the middle of the week, parents and children never have a chance to calm down. Because children are permanently scarred by these chronic outbursts, parents should focus everything they can to stop conflict and confrontation in the presence of children. Two simple solutions: Stop the face-to-face contact and reduce verbal communication. This will reduce the conflict by 75 percent immediately.

Telephone calls and text messages should get directly to the issue and not be used as a “stalking” mechanism or another way to carry on the conflict. It is simply too financially costly and nonproductive for the best interest of children. It also is costly to the health of both the parent and child. Continuous pumping of adrenaline and cortisol can lead to major stress on all bodily functions and organs, most notably the heart.

Avoid Parent Alienation

Parent alienation is when one parent consciously tries to turn the child against the other parent. Often parents say mean things as a way to vent their anger at the other parent, but their goal is not to alienate the child from the parent. It is very different when a parent sets out to consciously destroy the relationship between the child and the other parent. They may do this with negative remarks, hurtful stories, and personal requests for the child to take “their side” in the conflict.

It is not unusual after divorce for a child to feel more comfortable with one parent than the other. This probably is the relationship that was more strongly in place before the divorce. All children naturally relate more to one or the other of their parents, based on personalities and parenting styles. This doesn't mean they love one parent more than the other. After divorce, the physical break in the relationship from living in two homes puts stress on any parent/child relationship. Some children feel bored when they go for shared parenting time. It isn’t home. It is likely a new environment and the parent needs to work with the children to make sure they feel comfortable in the new place through positive interactions that build new memories.

True parent alienation begins when one parent continually makes rude and damaging remarks about the other parent in front of the children with the purpose of trying to make the child see how “bad” the other parent is. From rude comments, parent alienation can escalate to not allowing the children to see the other parent at all or actually moving so the child will not have any physical contact with the other parent. In some families, who can’t afford to fight custody battles in court, children may be estranged from one parent for a lifetime because of a manipulative parent who is trying to “protect” the child while getting even with the other parent.

If there is a reason for the child to be protected from the other parent, the court should know so that a restraining order or supervised parenting time can be implemented. It is not up to parents alone to stop visitation if the court has ordered shared parenting time. Doing so may be grounds for “Contempt of Court.” The Parenting Plan is a legal document that must be followed once it is ruled on by the court.

The emotional fallout for a child who has to live in a home where parent alienation is practiced is enormously damaging to mental and emotional development, as well as detrimental to the formation of stable, trusting relationships in the future. These highly disruptive relationships where children are used as bargaining chips can many times evolve into messy court battles, and in some extreme cases, abduction by one parent — NEVER in the best legal or emotional interest of the child.

Communicating With Respect

Parents teach children about respect and problem-solving every time one parent interacts with their other parent. When parents can stay connected for the purpose of guiding children through the difficulties of growing up, the children experience fewer feelings of loss, confusion, abandonment, anger, and rage. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Children model behaviors they see their parents exhibit. Are you showing respect? Always show respect.

To avoid conflict and displays of disrespect, use a business framework to communicate with your former spouse. Think of a 3- by 4-inch notepad. Everything worth saying about the issue should fit on that notepad. Keep it short, simple, to-the-point, and non-emotional. It isn't about YOU. Just the facts. Say it in outline form. Use only nouns and verbs and leave out those very descriptive adjectives that might create an emotional exchange. Remember when your Mom said, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all,” and “Count to 10 before you answer”?

Another good suggestion is to use an “I” message to express how you feel and how you would like things to change. This works well with parents and children. Here is an example using a common issue.

First Parent: “I am disappointed Jason was not picked up on time. He worries that he has been forgotten. Please call if plans change.”

Second Parent: “Yes. I apologize for not calling Jason. I will call him next time as soon as I know that I might be late, so he won’t worry.”


Second Parent: “I feel disrespected when my lateness is used against me because Jason is mad when I pick him up. Could Jason call me if he is worried?”

First Parent: “I suppose that would work better for all of us.”

Ease Transition Times

Transitions are the times when children go from the care of one parent to the care of the other parent. This often is referred to as “shared parenting time” or visitation.

If parents are sharing joint legal and physical custody in the same town when children are school-age and older, it may be easiest if they spend one week at one house and one week at the other house; however, there are no rules about this — only guidelines. If the parents do not live in the same town, or if the “shared parenting time” goes from the custodial to the noncustodial parent during the week and every other weekend, there are many opportunities for tension to arise during the transition from one parent to the other. Suggestions to ease these tensions include:

Develop a Parenting Plan

In many states a Parenting Plan must be filed at the time of the final divorce or custody hearing. This plan is a legal guide written in the best interest of the children for shared parenting time with both parents.

Parenting times work best if there is a minimum of 48 hours on weekends or overnight on weekdays. The shorter the time together, the greater the indicators of emotional frustration and acting-out behaviors. Loss of power and control is a major issue for children of divorce and should be considered in the discussion before making the final parenting plan.

Checklist for Shared Parenting Time

It is always good to have a mental checklist when helping children prepare for shared parenting time. This also is a great time to involve children in taking control of the situation. Help them develop a checklist so they can remember to bring home everything they take with them. It might look something like this:

Bottom Line for Parents

Divorce is an adult choice. There will be conflicting feelings for everyone involved in the relationships. Transition times are difficult because it brings the reality of a “separated” family into clear view for everyone to see. “Family” is important to children. They want to love both parents and it is possible for them to manipulate the situation to get parents together — even if they are arguing. At least they are together! They are trying to reunite “the dream” of their family. It is important for parents to remain focused on the best interests of the children at all times when exchanging information, material items, or the children.


Bone, Micahael J. and Walsh, Michael R., “Parental Alienation Syndrome: How to Detect It and What To Do About It” (March 1999). The Florida Bar Journal, Vol. 73, pp 44-48.

Lewis, Jennifer M. M.D. and Sammons, William A. H., Don’t Divorce Your Children, Contemporary Books, Chicago, 1999.

Stacer, Deena L. Ph.D.“Working with High Conflict Families,” (2000) High Conflict Intervention Program, San Diego.


This publication has been peer reviewed.

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Index: Families
2008, Revised August 2013