FAMILY LAW: 3 Theories of the High-Conflict Case

I do a lot of consulting to family lawyers and their clients (often on the phone together), as well as many self-representing people in family court cases. These often involve high-conflict custody and access issues, although finances can also be involved. One of the biggest problems I keep seeing is that many family law professionals (lawyers, judges, mediators, evaluators, counselors, etc.) have a presumption in high-conflict cases. Here are the three most common presumptions:

Talking to Children About Divorce: Using New Ways Parent-Child Talk

One of the first questions asked by parents who are beginning the divorce process is, “What should we tell the children, and how should we tell them?” Most parents, understandably, have a tough time telling their children about their pending divorce and describing how their lives will be forever changed. This daunting task can generate feelings of guilt, sadness, and regret. Instinctually, parents may want to avoid talking about the divorce altogether in an effort to protect their children from the pain. However, failing to tell children about divorce in a timely manner can leave them feeling hurt, betrayed and even more confused.

How the New Ways Skills Structure My Mediation Sessions: Lessons from a Mediator

In my mediation practice, I offer private mediations to families in transition and child protection mediation to families involved with child welfare agencies. A good proportion of the mediations, involve families in high conflict custody and access matters. A few years back, I attended a NWFF mediation training that Bill Eddy gave at one of the AFCC annual conferences. The small shifts in practice were noteworthy, and since then, I have used the NWFF techniques in my mediations. I had already been offering NWFF counselling, so incorporating the skills seemed quite natural. The following highlights some of the ways that I make use of the skills and strategies of NWFF program.

How Parenting Without Conflict Online Course is Different Than Other Parent Education Courses

Parenting without Conflict is based on the co-parenting curriculum of New Ways for Families®. New Ways is a counseling and coaching method for parents re-organizing their families after a separation or divorce. New Ways was specifically designed for parents who are stuck in an endless cycle of defensive thinking and extreme behaviors.

How do we know it’s effective? In developing the Parenting without Conflict course, the curriculum from New Ways for Families in-person program was transferred in it’s entirely to an online platform. The New Ways curriculum is based on interventions proven successful: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. (Read more about the research completed on the in-person New Ways program).

What is Transformative Mediation and How Is It Connected to the New Ways for Families Method?

Mediation is a negotiation that is facilitated by a neutral third party, whose job is to help disputants find a mutually acceptable resolution to their problem.  Transformative mediation is mediation’s Paleo diet.  It’s a back-to-basics and root-source approach to mediation.  Instead of seeking resolution (a settlement/agreement), transformative mediation seeks to change (transform) party-interaction, perception and approach to conflict.  And, according to the theory, this is exactly what parties are really looking to achieve in conflict resolution:

Taking the Assertive Approach in Family Court

Family court presents a difficult dilemma for reasonable people. If you act reasonably and use the cooperative problem-solving skills you use in daily life, you risk losing your case, because family court is a highly adversarial process that rewards combative thinking and behavior. This is why people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) traits are often attracted to court and often win.

The Six Strategies of Subtle Emotional and Psychological Abuse

Much is written about overt abusive behavior, the kind of in-your-face actions that are easily recognizable to virtually anyone. Those more obvious forms of abusive behavior include behaviors such as yelling, screaming, name calling, threatening and intimidating as well as physical forms of violence such as hitting, kicking, pushing, shoving and strangulating up to stabbing and shooting. But what of the more subtle forms of abusive behavior?

New Ways & Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)

New Ways for Families draws upon recent research and principles drawn from evidence-based therapies, including Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), Child-Inclusive Mediation, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Recent research indicates that many people with difficult and abusive personalities can change with 1) lots of structure; 2) small skills taught in small steps; 3) focus on future behavior, and 4) lots of validation from everyone working with them. Research also shows that working with parents and children together is more effective than working with them individually.

This article explains PCIT from a therapists’ perspective who works extensively with the therapy, and discusses the use of PCIT in New Ways for Families.

Parenting Coordination & Skills for High-Conflict Families

Parenting Coordination has been growing rapidly around the United States and other countries along with the increase in high-conflict families during and after a divorce. This article explains the background of parenting coordination; how the authority of the parenting coordinator originates; the role of the parenting coordinator after orders (both interim and final) have been made; its effectiveness; and some of the key issues to consider and why—in addition to helping families make decisions—it presents an opportunity for families to learn skills that will help them help themselves in the long run.

Relationship Air: The Scuba Airhose Theory and Borderline Personalities

Have you ever had difficulty catching your breath? If so, you know the feelings of panic it creates. The longer you're without air, panic gives way to hysteria. Scuba divers know the importance of oxygen supply. Without it, you don't survive. Divers usually dive in pairs in case their air supply is compromised. Every diver has a second air hose and regulator to loan to a scuba partner to prevent disaster. In those moments of oxygen shortage, a diver is going to feel some panic and possibly hysteria, mostly depending on experience. They need to attach to their partner's spare air hose to get the oxygen flowing through the blood stream again. Only then does panic and hysteria subside. They feel better, they relax.

This is the best analogy I can come up with to describe relationships for people who have Borderline Personality Disorder, Complex PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety disorder, and other issues that result in relationship anxiety. Not all, but some.

Misunderstanding Family Systems in Today’s Divorces: Part 2

In this Part 2, I explain how family systems adapt when there is a mental illness in the family, and how family courts misunderstand the importance of these adaptations. Since courts – and most people involved with courts – focus on individual rights and individual behavior, they tend to misunderstand the powerful part that family systems play in past and future behavior. 

Misunderstanding Family Systems in Today’s Divorces: Part 1

Family systems theory has been around for decades, but there is little discussion of it today. Yet understanding how family systems work can help professionals and parents going through separation and divorce. In this article, I explain some of the basics, some of what happens to family systems in divorce and how to truly help families in divorce. I also point out why the adversarial process of family courts successfully managed family conflicts in the past, but is guaranteed to fail today’s high-conflict family systems (regardless of procedural changes within the adversarial structure) – whereas skillful family mediation and other non-adversarial processes can succeed. 

Times of High Risk with High-Conflict People

We all have dealings with high-conflict people, in our families, at work and in our communities. They often catch us by surprise with their extreme thinking, emotions and behavior, which can include: an inability to compromise, lying, spreading rumors, stealing, damaging property, hiding money, suing their employers, frivolous lawsuits, stalking, abusing children, alienating children, domestic violence and sometimes even killing people. Yet most people scratch their heads, wondering why – and how to prevent these extreme behaviors in the future.  

Skills Before Decisions: Can Difficult Clients Learn Decision-Making Skills?

This article proposes some solutions to recent concerns raised by family lawyers, counselors, mediators and judges. How do we protect the children from their parents’ high-conflict behavior in separation and divorce? How do we create a shift from their negative engagement with decision-making to a positive engagement that helps parents help their children – rather than harming them, perhaps for life. I believe the answer lies in a significant paradigm shift I call skills before decisions.

Working with Resistance in New Ways for Families®

High-conflict people are highly defensive, so that negative feedback tends to trigger defensiveness rather than insight, and shuts down opportunities for teaching new skills. Therefore, working effectively with “resistance” to any feedback and criticism is one of the central issues of helping high-conflict people. Because of this defensiveness, they frequently deny that they have any problems and resist every effort that counselors and other professionals make to help them – even in their own self-interest.

Rather than engage in the usual “tug-of-war” with this resistance (which the clients are very used to), New Ways Counselors are encouraged to “dance” with the resistance, or to “go with the resistance” – by non-judgmentally exploring and discussing the client’s concerns while providing information, rather than arguing with or confronting the client.

Ten Tips for Client Engagement

Clients today want to be positively engaged with their professionals and to play an important role, yet many of them tend towards negative engagement and many professionals are tempted to respond negatively as well – especially when they have “high-conflict” clients. These tips can be used with anyone to help them engage clients in thinking about problem-solving rather than reacting.