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Conflict can happen within families, between spouses, and among siblings. Conflict can also occur with extended family and with other important people in your child’s life. Conflict is normal and expected. However, when conflict escalates, is persistent, and remains unresolved, it can be harmful.
Learning to address high conflict situations is important. The stress you experience from conflict will be felt by your child as well. When conflict is persistent and unresolved, it can
- cause confusion for your child,
- foster feelings of uncertainty and stress,1
- increase emotional distress,1
- reduce your child’s ability to manage and regulate their emotions,1
- negatively impact your child’s development,1 and
- foster unwelcome behaviors in your child.
In high conflict situations, your child misses out on the security of a stable, consistent, and nurturing environment.
This document provides guidance on what to do when there is high conflict between you and other important people in your child’s life. Learning to navigate high conflict situations can help you to
- model the behaviors you are teaching your children,
- grow your social and emotional skills,
- grow your child’s social and emotional skills, and
- ultimately do what is in your child’s best interest.
Navigating High Conflict
In high conflict situations, managing your own thoughts and behaviors is essential so that your child’s best interest can be at the forefront of your decision-making and actions.
High conflict is more likely when:2, 3
- There is no give and take. Taking a rigid stance that leaves no room for discussion can lead to conflict. This might sound like: “You never agree with my rules for the children. My rules, my house, I won’t budge.”
- Emotions are not managed well. Experiencing intense emotions that are out of context for the situation can increase conflict. For example, a person may become highly irritated or overly sad in a situation but in a different circumstance, would experience emotions more in alignment with the situation.
- Behaviors are extreme. Displaying behaviors that are at one extreme can increase the likelihood of conflict. For example, either the person is not responsive in a situation (“I won’t do anything”), or they are overly controlling (“I won’t let you see the kids ever again!”).
- The “blame game” is in full effect. Not taking responsibility for one’s own behavior or continually attempting to place blame on someone else can increase conflict. This can sound like: “You are the reason our child is so permissive. She doesn’t ever stick up for herself, just like you!”
While it isn’t likely you will be able to change the other person, you can influence the situation by changing yourself.
Your goals for managing high conflict with an important person in your child’s life will vary. Your goals depend on your unique situation. Your goals might be
- to preserve the relationship you have with the important person,
- to preserve the relationship your child has with the important person, and
- to resolve the conflict as best you can.
Or, you may be in a situation where your relationship with the person is over, but the person still has an important role in your child’s life. In this situation, your goals might be
- to manage yourself when communication with the person is required,
- to not put your child in the middle of the conflict you have with the other person, and
- to preserve the relationship your child has with the other person.
Sometimes high conflict relationships can threaten people’s safety and can lead to injury or even death. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines intimate partner violence: “Intimate partner violence includes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression (including coercive tactics) by a current or former intimate partner (i.e., spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, dating partner, or ongoing sexual partner).”4
The State of Montana defines domestic violence as: A person commits the offense of “partner or family member assault” if the person: (a) purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to a partner or family member; (b) negligently causes bodily injury to a partner or family member with a weapon; or (c) purposely or knowingly causes reasonable apprehension of bodily injury in a partner or family member.”5
If you are concerned about your safety, the safety of children, or the safety of others, please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline:1-800-799-7233.
Actions to Take When You Want to Preserve the Relationship You and Your Child Have With the Important Person
- Show respect and kindness regardless of your thoughts and feelings. Remember, you are modeling behaviors for your child.
- Keep the goal in mind – you want what is best for your child. This important goal can help you to keep perspective when faced with challenge and conflict. When faced with a conflict, ask yourself, “What is the desired outcome of this communication? In what ways can I communicate that will produce a positive outcome for my child?”
- Notice, name, and accept your feelings. Notice what you are honestly feeling and name it (for example, “I’m angry and frustrated about this situation”). Accepting those feelings instead of fighting them can be a relief. And, then if you want to change what you are feeling, you can take action toward change.
- Consider your own needs in the situation. Ask yourself, “What do I need (to be heard, to feel like my opinion matters, etc.)?”
- “Stay on your own mat.” This is an expression from Yoga. It means taking responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and not trying to control the other person’s feelings.
- Be thoughtful about your response. It takes a lot of restraint to think through what you want to say before you say it. Consider what is helpful in the situation.
- Commit to yourself that you will not put the other person down, name call, or use derogatory language to describe the person in front of your child.
- Avoid having high conflict conversations with your child present.
- Have a conversation with your child about the conflict you are having, but only share what is age appropriate. Even though it can seem like not talking about the conflict with your child would be better, children are very perceptive, and they are probably already sensing something is wrong. Purposely not talking about the conflict with your child is like having an elephant in the room that everyone tries to ignore, but no one can. Be authentic. You might say something like, “Your grandma and I have different opinions about what is the best approach to take right now.” But, be careful not to portray the other person in a negative light. Avoid using language that puts the other person down (e.g. “Your grandma is completely unreasonable and stubborn”). You don’t want your child to feel as though they must choose one side to show their loyalty. Never put your child in the middle of the conflict.
- Set healthy boundaries. Boundaries are important to protect and take care of yourself and your child. Boundaries look like setting limits and telling the important person when something is unacceptable to you.
Setting a boundary or limit requires that you are the person who can follow through with the boundary. Notice the difference between these two examples:
- “I know that in the past, when we communicate, we usually end up yelling at each other. If one of us starts to yell, I will leave, and we can resume our conversation after we have both calmed down.”
- “I know that in the past, when we communicate, we usually end up yelling at each other. If that happens, you should leave.”
In the first example, the limit is set and requires an action from you – “I will leave.” In the second example, the boundary focuses on the actions of the other person – “You should leave.” Unfortunately, setting a boundary like this is dangerous because you have no control over whether the other person will follow the boundary or not. When setting boundaries, make sure that you are the person who can follow through with the limit you have set.
Actions to Take When Your Relationship With the Person Is Over, But the Person Still Has an Important Role in Your Child’s Life
Sometimes despite your best efforts, you may decide that it is no longer possible or healthy for you to be in a relationship with the person. You may decide that your relationship with the person is over. However, even if you reach this conclusion for yourself, you may not be able to completely disconnect from this person because the person still has an important role in your child’s life. In these situations, some additional actions might help. Remember, it is important to manage this relationship by managing your own thoughts and behaviors with your child’s best interests at the forefront of your decision making and actions.
- It is okay to make the decision that you can no longer be in a relationship with the person. Making a difficult choice like this, while hard to do, can be the best decision for everyone.
- Stick with communication that is necessary for the wellbeing of your child and avoid emotional and personal engagement.
- Consider using Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm Responses.6 When communicating by email or text, keep your communication:
- Brief – Be brief and to the point. If communicating by email, write only what is necessary.
- Informative – Stick with what is true without adding your feelings and opinions.
- Friendly – Respond in a friendly tone. Remember, your goal is to manage this relationship by managing your own thoughts and behaviors.
- Firm – Be clear about the information and your position. Don’t invite further conflict and discussion by saying something like “What are your thoughts?” unless you are open to negotiation and further dialogue.6 “Firm doesn’t mean harsh; it just means that it ends the conversation.”6
TIP For more information and online classes for high conflict relationships, visit the High Conflict Institute at highconflictinstitute.com.
- Make a conscious choice about how you will communicate with the other person. Avoid escalating the conflict by communicating when your emotions are high. It is okay to wait to communicate with the other person until you can manage your emotions.
- If communication with the important other has the potential to escalate or become dangerous, establish safe barriers for communication through email, co-parenting software, or another means of communication that will ensure everyone’s safety.
- Accept that you cannot change the other person. You may have done a lot of work to make this relationship work, but it is okay to say you can no longer do this. It is a deliberate choice that you are making, and this choice does not reflect negatively on you as a person.
- Seek professional help if needed. Parenting is rewarding and challenging. It is okay to ask for help.
Conflict can teach children how to resolve disputes and reconcile differences, but conflict can also cause stress and negatively impact you and your child. Conflict is harmful when it is persistent and unresolved. Navigating high conflict with important people in your child’s life is difficult, but taking actions to manage yourself in these situations can make a positive difference. Addressing high conflict in a constructive way can
- model the behaviors you want to teach your children;
- maintain a secure, stable, and nurturing environment despite the stress caused by the conflict; and
- help you to maintain perspective.
In high conflict situations, you might make the choice that you want to preserve the relationship you and your child have with the important person. Or, you might also make the deliberate choice that your relationship with the person is over, but the person still has an important role in your child’s life. Either of these choices is okay. Your goal in high conflict situations is to ultimately do what is in your child’s best interest.