How to Handle High Conflict Co-Parenting With Minimal Stress

Updated September 24, 2021
high conflict co-parenting

Amicable co-parenting yields the most optimal results for families following a separation. Divorced life is undoubtedly easier when all parties can figure out a way to raise kids without conflict. Not all ex-partners can parent jointly or amicably following a split. High conflict co-parenting makes child-rearing far more challenging, and those who find themselves in these choppy waters must know how to handle the situation with minimal stress.

High Conflict Co-Parenting

If you and your former partner are often engaged in acrimony, this may lead to high conflict co-parenting, especially if you're co-parenting with a narcissist. Everything with a high-conflict ex is going to be more challenging than it might be if the pair of you are able to communicate well and work together for the sake of your children. If your ex-partner exhibits the following traits, you might have a high-conflict situation on your hands:

  • Always creating a world of extremes via very black and white thought processes
  • Inability to compromise
  • Perpetually pushes blame and never accepts their resposibility in a situation
  • Desires complete control over everything
  • Often speaks ill of the other parent in front of the kids
  • Consistently argumentative

While you can't change the scenario (because frankly, you can't make someone into something they are not), you can change how you navigate this toxic relationship. Whether you like it or not, you and your high conflict ex are going to be co-parenting together until the kids are grown and gone.

Navigating High Conflict Co-Parenting Situations

Once you have recognized that you are indeed in a high conflict co-parenting situation, you need to understand that no amount of hope, prayer, or work on your part will magically transform your former partner into an easygoing, post-divorce teammate. In truth, you only have control over your own words and actions, not theirs. You cannot change them, but you can cope with the situation at hand and develop healthy strategies for yourself during these conflict-laden co-parenting years.

Create a Parenting Plan and Stick to It

Even under the best circumstances, co-parenting requires a set plan for parents to adhere to. Now that kids are traveling between two homes, everyone needs to know who is going where and on what days. Hashing out the details in a parenting schedule can feel like you are climbing a mountain to reach the parenting plan promised land, but it really is essential, especially for former high-conflict couples.

Exes that tend to argue over even the most minor details and changes should aim to make a plan as quickly as possible. Once the parenting plan is created, you can stick to it, stay the course, and know you are doing your part. With a parenting plan, your ex can argue their cause or slam the plan, but all you need to be responsible for is following what has been laid out and agreed upon.

Don't Go to Battle

Learning to disengage from volatile conversations is tricky. Emotions often get the best of people, and what started as a minor disagreement can quickly explode into a full-blown screaming match. In families that are navigating life while living separately, massive arguments will only move them further from the goal of raising kids jointly and in a healthy emotional environment. The first step to minimizing verbal arguments is to know when a disagreement is beginning.

  • Recognize your own triggers. Learn what typically sets you off and when your ex goes there, refuse to take the bait.
  • Disengage when things get heated. You do not have to stay in that setting and continue the war. Create a verbal script for removing yourself and your children from a verbal battle that is on the brink.
  • Remove yourself from physical situations that are negative or threatening. Sometimes you really do have to walk away, especially if you know that no words will ever create a meeting of the minds between the two of you.

Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries with an ex is tricky. You once shared every aspect of your lives with each other, and now that is no longer the game plan. Boundaries help everyone maintain some level of healthy distance as adults learn to navigate a new world of parenting apart from a former partner.

  • Have set times to take your ex's phone calls or emails. Just because your ex texts you at 1:30 a.m. about tomorrow's drop-off does not mean you have to answer immediately.
  • Keep your personal life to yourself. Your ex doesn't need to know about it if it doesn't affect them directly. Keep topics of conversation kid-related.
  • Don't get too curious about their personal life. Even when they try and throw comments or hints about their new social world your way, refrain from social media stalking or other useless behavior.
  • Create a verbal script to recite when communicating with a high-conflict ex. If you see the conversation heading south, turn towards pre-scripted words.
  • Meet in neutral spaces when it comes time to send the children from one home to the other. If the relationship between you and your ex is volatile or unsafe, bring a trusted friend with you when you must meet to drop the kids off.
Woman dropping son to his father

Consider Parallel Parenting

Parallel parenting is a method of parenting where both parents actively spend quality time with the kids but minimize the communication and the interaction between them. It is important to note that this approach includes "minimizing" NOT extinguishing the communication between the adults. The communication between exes is often not done in face-to-face mode, which allows children to be sheltered from disagreements and negative interactions. Parallel parenting is different from co-parenting.

  • In co-parenting, parents might attend appointments and performances together. In parallel parenting, they take turns attending them.
  • In co-parenting, decisions regarding the children are made jointly. In parallel parenting, one parent makes decisions in one realm of a child's life while the other parent makes decisions in another realm.

Utilize Co-Parenting Apps

No matter how hard you try, the communication between you and your child's other parent seems to sour within minutes and take a turn for the toxic. Knowing that simply ceasing communication isn't the right road to travel, you might want to look into technological apps to help you communicate information without having to actually speak to your ex.

Apps like Our Family Wizard, CoParently, and 2Houses serve as a hub for all necessary communication needs. Co-parents can access and store medical and school records, updates, and messages. Schedules and child-related expenses can be stored on these apps for both parties to access, and Our Family Wizard even contains a "tone check" function, so parents can type out what they plan to communicate with a co-parent and see if the tone is friendly or otherwise.

Each app has its own set of perks, and they get the job done without the back and forth and emotional engagement. For former couples who know that less is honestly more when it comes to interaction between them, these apps can be key in creating functional and healthy family structures.

Take Care of Yourself

Being in a relationship, then going through a divorce, and now co-parenting with a high conflict person can take a toll on anyone. The emotional drain has the potential to drag you down if you don't take care of yourself. As you navigate the uncertain, often-explosive, and frustrating universe of high-conflict co-parenting, be sure to carve out time for self-care by:

  • Getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, and exercise each day
  • Considering meditation, yoga, or light walking to clear your mind space and center yourself
  • Going to therapy or counseling if it would be a beneficial addition to your self-care routine

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

Because high conflict exes will emotionally drain you, it can sometimes feel like giving up is the only solution. Know that this is never the best option. You are a parent and a good one at that. You know that nothing comes before your kids, and they are far more important than winning an argument or getting your way over your ex. Whenever you feel overwhelmed with having to go through life with a toxic ex, keep your eye on the prize: your children, and know all you endure is so they can have the very best shot at a healthy upbringing.

How to Handle High Conflict Co-Parenting With Minimal Stress