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Why do we work with High Conflict Separated Parents?

September 27, 2014

In addition to seeing separated parents who actually can put the needs of their children ahead of themselves, I also see a good many separated parents stuck in unremitting conflict.

Despite all the good information, education, coaching and even cajoling, they are bent on projecting blame and deflecting responsibility while continuously confusing their own needs and wants with the needs of their children. Indeed, while cloaking themselves as their child’s bastion of support and advocate of their best interests, their children are visibly straining under the weight of their parents’ hostility and animosity.

Whereas we want all children to grow up well, be responsible and prosper, the goals for children of high conflict parents are far more modest. They include mere survival – not committing suicide; minimizing the degree to which they will be affected by mental health problems associated with parental conflict (depression, anxiety, personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder), avoiding pregnancy and finishing high school.

The goals for the parents include, reducing the number of times they go to court; preserving assets that would otherwise go to more expensive forms of conflict resolution (litigation); limiting conflict with the law the result of drug or alcohol abuse or violent behavior; limiting the risk associating with domestic violence. To affect these parental goals, we seek to have them disengage – tall fences make good neighbors. We want them out of each other’s hair. To the degree we can meet these goals, the child related goals may fall in line.

Statistically, many of the parents seen as” high conflict”, have underlying personality disorders – a very stable, but idiosyncratic view of themselves and others, not supported by objective evidence. Their idiosyncratic view of themselves and the world creates conflict between themselves and others even when they ascribe all manner of blame to the other.

Common to the pattern of personality disorder seen is a fellow with a narcissistic personality disorder and a woman with either a borderline, histrionic or dependent personality disorder. In the event of working with a couple where one parent has a personality disorder, statistically the odds are better than 50/50 that the other parent will have a personality disorder too.

I have a reputation for being willing to take on referrals of these very challenging parents. As challenging as the parents may be, somehow or other, many of them find support systems and even lawyers whose issues mirror their own. This can escalate conflict for all involved and increases the risk of the service provider being scapegoated and becoming a new target of blame in the family drama.

Good guidance seems to fall flat in these situations. Next you need good workers who have strong boundaries themselves, so as to avoid being inducted into the family drama and remain focused on the needs of the children even when positioned as the new target of blame.

The risks of working with these families is actually quite great for the service provider and includes public vilification, spurious claims of impropriety, internet complaints, complaints to licensing bodies and even lawsuits.

Why would anyone do this work?

Kind of like fishing… Many may get away, but occasionally our work really helps a child, even if only modestly.

That makes it all worthwhile.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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  1. Some comments received on this blog post from other discussion groups:

    Well said Gary–genuine, astute and honest. All of us who do this work can truly relate and I would agree that we do it for the one starfish to whom we might make a difference.


    Well put Gary. There are a core of people in our field who are master therapists. We take on the tough clients and tough situations because someone must and also because we have, for some reason, had success with difficult clients and situations. To not try to intervene in high conflict divorce and custody situations means they all suffer – especially the children of course. Couples who cannot emotionally disengage enough to put the children’s interests first will expend their emotional energy in endless dispute that not only robs everyone of future happiness, but is often a financial catastrophe for all concerned paying lawyers, and therapists.


    Wow, you could not have said that better. Helping one family and thus just one child makes it worthwhile. I am also an internal optimist that will enough education and maybe just the “right education” something will stick and the tide will change. I have seen some amazing change for the better in people’s lives. I also think just “understanding” what these high-conflict families go through can sometimes help one of them to move forward just knowing that they have been heard.

    Great post Gary!!


    • Great article! The right sort of professional intervention matters. But sometimes ‘professionals’ do get it wrong.

      Here in the UK, until 14 years ago we had what was known as the family court welfare service staffed almost entirely by Criminal Probation officers, untrained in family work – crafting reports for the Family Courts, that determined the fate of approx. 100,000 children every year. They had no guidelines and no proper complaints procedure; a one-sided approach was not uncommon, and child-parent severance was considered the norm. Prior to being disbanded for professional malfeasance and procedural neglect, over half of the beleaguered Family Court Welfare Service staff were under unaddressed complaint for incompetence and bias.

      Its replacement, Cafcass, fares no better, staffed mainly by former employees from the FCWS. Over a decade since it opened its doors, and over a billion pounds spent, and having determined the fate of over a million children’s futures – yet Cafcass has yet to put pen to paper on guidelines in the main area of their work. Thus, training has not yet begun.

      Conversely, the sort of child-centred model or framework envisaged by enlightened professionals, is already enshrined in statute in such countries as Norway where parents are considered ‘Court phobic’ and child-parent severance is unusual. Without guidelines based on the sort of arrangements that ‘good enough’ parents will agree, child-parent severance is both inevitable; yet, almost entirely avoidable. Here in the UK our services have yet to evolve.

      Utilising a time-based framework, professionals are able to help supposed ‘high conflict’ clients to come to terms with the fact that; (a) their role as parents continues, sharing the responsibilities of parenting, even after their relationship has come undone; (b) the norms of quantum and frequency of visits, based on the apportionment of a child’s time that ‘good enough’ parents will agree. (This framework should of course be underpinned with the caveat of ‘good reason’).

      This child-centred proposition addresses the perceived power imbalance between separating couples from the outset – helping them to focus on the needs of their child; with appropriate professional intervention and support, where required, enabling parents to set aside their emotiveness and temporary impaired thinking arising from divorce trauma.

      A child-centred framework represents the future of high conflict resolution, that is achievable today. The end beneficiary is of course the child, growing up in a continuing relationship with both parents, being loved and cherished in two homes. Benefits to children and society will flow.

  2. Thank You! Very sound truths in this one.

  3. Ruth permalink

    Thank you so much for your piece on this topic. I have been dealing with similar issues with a parent but keep going back to “it’s to help the children have consistency and support as the goal”. When I think and plan with those goals in mind, I can continue working with the family.

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