10 Rules for Protecting Kids in High Conflict Divorce

There's a lot at stake in a high conflict, high asset divorce, but most parents agree that the most important thing is their relationship with their children. However, keeping your kids out of the fray and making sure their needs are protected is key. 

Here are some best practices to shield your children from the divorce process as much as possible:

  1. Put on a pleasant smile even if it’s a facade. When you're interacting with your spouse in front of your kids, avoid all conflict. Yes, even if it takes all your energy. Plaster a smile on your face and focus only on transferring your kids or the event you are at together. It can be tempting to want to put your spouse on the spot, particularly if you're at a school event with lots of people around who may be whispering about the divorce, but any conflict you create will certainly leave a scar for your child. And if this happens at school, they're going to be embarrassed. Treat your ex like an acquaintance. Be polite and distant.

  2. Be a parent, not a friend. No matter how close your relationship is with your kids, they are your children, not your confidantes. They cannot be the people you unload to about your frustration, hurt, or anger. They also cannot be your sounding board for the divorce and all the decisions involved in it. Consult your friends and your therapists to discuss adult matters. When you kids ask you questions, answer honestly but briefly, and omit all the gory details. 

  3. Encourage contact. You know your spouse is crazy, deranged, unfeeling, or mean, so your protective instinct is to keep your kids away from them. Unless your child is actually in physical danger, you should do the opposite: encourage your child and the other parent to spend time together. Embrace their scheduled time together. Support your child spending time with your spouse. 

    This might seem counterintuitive, but courts love a parent who fosters their child's relationship with the other parent. If you try to stand in the way of that relationship, it can be considered parental interference. Knowing you approve of and support their time with the other parent will lift some weight from your child's shoulders, reducing their stress. 

  4. Don't fight over labels. There are a lot of words with a high emotional load that will be bandied about as you go through your divorce: legal custody, residential custody, shared parenting, sole custody, and so on. And while you're in a position where status and image does matter, the thing that really matters the most is creating a parenting plan that works best for your child(ren). 

    What you want, above all else, is a schedule that makes your child comfortable and allows them to succeed in school and find their footing in the world. Focus on that first, and the rest will fall into place.  

  5. Keep your battles out of the school. Although you and your ex may be at each other's throats, keep this animosity off the radar at your child's school. The truth is that private schools don’t want families that are complicated and difficult to work with. If the school is getting a lot of calls from you or your ex about who can pick up your child, how badly the other parent is supervising homework, or asking for two separate parent-teacher conferences on separate days, so you don't pass in the hallway, your family will be marked as difficult. 

    If you and your ex shout at each other at the science fair, you become a liability. The school does work for you to a certain point, but if your family becomes too much of a headache, they have a long waiting list of other people who could fill your child's spot and be much less trouble and then your child misses out on an education you are working so hard for them to receive.

  6. Schedule parenting meetings. There are certainly logistics you need to discuss with your spouse, so you do need to communicate about schedules, education decisions, medical matters, and more. The best way to do this is to schedule a formal meeting. Having a meeting in a public place such as your office or a restaurant forces everyone to maintain a certain level of civility. At these meetings, discuss only those items on the agenda. This is not the place to air your grievances about your entire marriage and what your spouse did wrong. 

    It's also not the place to talk about who gets the beach house or how much alimony is going to be paid. Focus only on the issues about your child. Please put on your poker face and treat it like a business meeting. Being able to work together to make decisions about parenting benefits your child and ensures a smoother ride for them through this process.

  7. Choose your battles. Now that you and your spouse are going on with your separate lives, you're each going to do things differently. Your child is going to have two homes with two different approaches. This is the time to let the small stuff go and focus only on the big things. In the scheme of things, it is not the end of the world if your spouse's nanny lets your kid stay up half an hour later at that house. 

    It's not a grave concern if your child is allowed to play video games before doing homework at that house. Is it annoying? Yes. Does it make it harder for you to keep things in line at your own home? Absolutely. But if you fight about every tiny thing, you're going to be in court for the rest of your life. And your child is going to be pulled even further in two directions while all of this shift is happening in their life. 

  8. Speak positively about the other parent. Whenever the other parent is mentioned in front of your child, make it your mission to ensure that those mentions are positive or at least neutral. If you say what you really think, your child hears it and is wounded by it. Not only do they love the other parent and feel hurt by this, but children are narcissists by nature. They assume everything is about them. So, when they hear you speaking angrily about the other parent, they assume it is all their fault. No, it's not rational, but children aren't always logical.

    Your child takes every negative word you say about your ex as a direct personal criticism. They believe they somehow caused this divorce or did things that created the anger they hear. If you can keep a lid on your true feelings about the other parent, it will help your child more easily navigate the situation. Your kids love their other parent, even if that relationship is complicated, difficult, or imperfect. Let them have blinders on about what that parent is truly like. Could you give them the gift of another parent? And if your spouse is truly a horrible person, your kids are going to figure this out on their own eventually. 

  9. Never put your child in the middle. Do not ask your child to tell the other parent anything, to report to you about what happened at the other parent's house, or to describe what the other parent's new significant other is like. Even an innocuous question like, "What did you have for dinner at Mom's?" is a minefield your child has to walk across, knowing that you're likely looking for information to use against the other parent and that anything they say could make you upset.

  10. Keep your kid involved. While you don't want your child involved in the divorce, the fighting, or the resentment, you do need to keep them involved about what it all means for them. Children need to know how everything is going to affect them. Where will they sleep? Where will they go to school? Will they see their friends and their grandparents? Give them all the details about precisely what is going to happen in a compassionate manner. Show them the parenting schedule and put it on a calendar in their room or on their phone. Doing so helps them understand the plan and eases their minds.

A high conflict divorce puts a lot of stress on children, but if you make conscious efforts to protect them from it and create an environment that supports their needs, they are likely to be ok.  


Naomi Schanfield

Naomi Schanfield concentrates on all aspects of matrimonial and family law, including, prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, divorce, equitable distribution, child custody and visitation, support matters, family offense disputes, and domestic violence.

To connect with Naomi: 212.682.6222 | Online

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