By Michelle Jensen, MSW, JD and Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
© 2012 High Conflict Institute
New Ways for Families® is a short term, structured counseling method for parents re-organizing their families after a separation or divorce. New Ways was specifically designed for “high conflict” parents – those who are stuck in an endless cycle of conflict. Ideally, New Ways should be used at the start of a case before big decisions are made, to prevent the parties from becoming high-conflict. However, New Ways is valuable at any point in the process, even post-divorce or after parenting orders are made.
New Ways for Families® was specifically designed for high conflict parents. High conflict parents need more structure and accountability than a typical parent. They lack self-awareness and basic problem solving skills. They are unable to manage their emotions, which leads to extreme behavior. They constantly return to court with increased demands, expecting the judge to “see their side” and make decisions in their favor. However, they will never be satisfied with the decisions of the judge and will continue to return to court on every issue. They are determined to keep the conflict going instead of looking for ways to resolve it.
New Ways is different than a parenting class in two ways. First, New Ways provides the structure and accountability that high conflict parents need. Second, New Ways focuses on the long term effects for children, rather than short term change in parents’ behavior, likely to last only during the divorce process or until the court has made orders in their favor.
Structure & Accountability
Many high conflict parents often have personality disorders, or traits thereof, requiring a different approach by professionals. Treatments for personality disorders have shown that many high conflict parents may be able to change, with sufficient structure and learning small skills in small steps. New Ways acknowledges that high conflict parents lack three fundamental problem solving skills:
• flexible thinking (making realistic proposals, acknowledging that there is more than one solution, acknowledging that people are not “all-bad” or “all-good”)
• managed emotions (controlling one’s anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety so as to not over-react and take things personally, and to not pass on these feelings to the child)
• moderate behaviors (avoiding extreme actions, including extreme behavior during custody exchanges, extreme parenting order requests, and violence)
Without these skills, they are unable to behave reasonably when confronted with conflict. They think in extreme ways, which leads to extreme behavior. And, they don’t even recognize that they are doing it!
Talking to the Wrong Brain
Instead of focusing on practical skills for conflict resolution, parenting classes often focus on providing education and resources in a lecture format, as if they are speaking to a reasonable person. They assume that parents will hear the information, digest it, and change their behavior accordingly.
With high conflict people, the parenting class instructors are “talking to the wrong brain.” High conflict parents are unable to take in the information and change their behavior accordingly because they are “stuck” making decisions based on their feelings – not logic. They view the world through their right, emotional side of the brain, rather than the left, logical side. Therefore, high conflict parents don’t really “hear” the information presented in parenting classes because they don’t automatically engage the logical side of their brain. Some parenting classes do require participation, often in small group exercises. However, without more structure and repetition, high conflict parents don’t learn from these exercises.
New Ways provides the necessary structure, accountability, and repetition by requiring that each parent meet with the individual counselor on a weekly basis to complete workbook exercises. These written exercises require each parent to really think about their own behaviors and to acknowledge the positive qualities of the other parent. They are held accountable for learning these skills by:
(1) discussing the workbook exercises in detail with their counselor
(2) writing in the workbook using their own words (thereby triggering the left side of their brain)
(3) being required to demonstrate these skills during the parent- child counseling sessions
The skills they learn during the weekly sessions will help them communicate and make parenting decisions together in the future, even as new issues arise post-divorce. Parenting classes simply don’t provide this level of structure and accountability.
High Conflict Parents, High Conflict Children: Long Term Effects
High conflict parents raise high conflict children. In a high conflict divorce or custody dispute, stakes for the children are high. The longer the problem continues, the longer the children are placed in the middle of the ongoing conflict. Not only does it affect their lives on a daily basis, but they learn this high conflict behavior – which has long term consequences. Children who learn high conflict behavior have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships, managing their emotions and behavior, and developing problem solving skills.
Parenting classes tend to focus on the parents, particularly past negative behavior. This allows for a high conflict parent to only focus blame on the other parent, obsessing about the “bad” actions of that other parent. New Ways focuses on positive future behavior – how to effectively co-parent, how to teach the child skills for resilience for future success, how to use appropriate problem solving skills for future situations. New Ways focuses on the outcome for the child, on creating a co-parenting environment that is healthy for the child and teaches skills for resilience.
High conflict parents are so focused on blaming and destroying the other parent that they often don’t recognize their child’s needs. Their lack of awareness doesn’t allow them to see the effect they are having on their children. Over the past decade, there has been increased discussion about the level of participation a child should have in the divorce process. While it is not necessarily in the child’s best interest to have a decisions-making role, it is important for parents to hear their child’s concerns and understand what they might be feeling. Parenting classes usually do not allow for the child’s voice to be heard. Parenting classes often assume that parents are acting in the best interest of the child, without recognizing that high conflict parents don’t have this level of awareness.
New Ways requires each parent to really listen to their child’s concerns during the parent-child counseling sessions. Then, they can make better decisions based on those concerns. They continue to use the skills during this step of the method by helping their child complete the workbook exercises. These exercises reinforce the skills by requiring the parent and child to apply them to various situations together, in a written format (again, triggering the left, problem solving side of their brain).
While parenting classes are beneficial for many parents going through the divorce or custody process, they simply don’t provide what is necessary for long-term behavioral change for high conflict parents. New Ways is specifically designed for these types of parents.