How to Handle High-Conflict Custody Arrangements

by Beverly Bird

Often, the issues and problems that lead spouses to divorce also make it impossible for them to cooperate regarding parenting issues post-divorce. They forget that their children didn’t ask for or want their parents to divorce or separate. The effects of their acrimony trickle down to their kids even when they don't intend it. When both parents acknowledge and anticipate this tendency, they can take steps to control it.

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Agree to Mediate

When a court must decide a parenting plan or custody arrangement because parents cannot negotiate one on their own, judges usually send them to mediation first. A skilled mediator trained in handling high-conflict situations can often make a difference. Parents can also agree at the time of their initial custody order to return to mediation if parenting issues crop up that they can’t agree on. Rather than fighting incessantly or running back to court over small issues, they can meet with a trained third party to help resolve issues as they come up, reserving court appearances for those times when mediation fails. Parents can also agree to a “tiebreaker” system if they can agree on a disinterested third party whom they both respect. In disputes, the third party can make decisions or potentially negotiate a compromise.

Adhere to the Details

The more detailed a parenting plan is, the less opportunity it gives parents for conflict. A visitation or custody schedule that pinpoints terms down to the tiniest detail can be helpful, but only if both parents respect it and follow it. High-conflict families generally don't do well with custody orders that provide only for “reasonable visitation” or “parenting time by agreement,” because they often cannot agree.


The most stressful times for children of high-conflict parents are those when their parents are exchanging custody. Including terms for these exchanges in a custody order reduces opportunities for contact between parents and it likewise reduces conflict. For example, parents might agree to exchange their children at a neutral location, not at each others' homes. The location should be one that discourages “scenes,” such as a fast-food restaurant or even a public parking lot. If family members and friends are willing, they can step in and drive the children between parents’ homes instead.

Make Use of Technology

Parents can also cut down on contact between each other while still maintaining a close relationship with their children when they take advantage of technology. Installing programs like Skype on a computer or television can allow parents and children to talk to and see each other electronically on a daily basis. The other parent does not have to be involved. Texting, emails and online instant messaging don’t offer visual contact, but they can maintain a steady stream of communication between parents and children as well, without the other parent’s involvement.