Navigating Parenting in High-Conflict Divorces

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A new peer-reviewed article by Dr. Matt Mutchler, a Delaware Valley University assistant professor of counseling psychology, offers strategies to help parents who are going through high-conflict divorces.

Dr. Mutchler recently published “Family Counseling With High-Conflict Separated Parents: Challenges and Strategies” in The Family Journal, The Official Journal of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors.

Dr. Mutchler’s article offers a framework for understanding high-conflict divorce and provides strategies to address common challenges high-conflict parents face. The article includes examples from real parents who have navigated high-conflict divorces.

When parents separate and divorce, they and their children often suffer dire emotional consequences, especially when the parents have a “high-conflict” relationship. Some of these negative impacts include delayed adjustment, strained parent-child relationships, depression, anxiety and negative coping strategies such as substance abuse. The negative effects of a high-conflict divorce can last for years after the parents separate. When parents have a more collaborative relationship, however, outcomes are more positive.

Counseling can help parents minimize the negative impacts of divorce on their children. In the article, Dr. Mutchler suggests counselors and parents use the following strategies:

  • Redirect the focus to how a child could win rather than one parent
    In his work with a couple where both people were constantly trying to “win” arguments by making the other parent look bad, Dr. Mutchler encouraged the parents to think about how their daughter could win rather than how one parent could win. This helped refocus the conversation on what was best for the child.
  • Identify both parents’ strengths
    Often in high-conflict divorces, parents emphasize the negative and ignore the positive when it comes to their former spouses. Dr. Mutchler suggests reframing each parent as both good and bad. By shifting the focus to what makes the other party good as a parent, Dr. Mutchler helps people remember and identify their former partners’ strengths.
  • Emphasize that the couple is over and focusing on co-parenting
    Dr. Mutchler suggests that high-conflict couples go into therapy with a clear understanding of their goals. While the couple is over, divorced parents still have to interact with each other. Dr. Mutchler suggests making it clear to both parties that the counseling is not aimed at healing wounds each parent suffered in the relationship or at reconciliation. Both parties should understand that the only goal of the counseling is to build a “cooperative co-parenting environment.”
  • Establish ground rules for communication
    To keep counseling sessions productive, it is helpful to set ground rules for communication. Dr. Mutchler suggests setting rules such as “only one person may talk at a time.” He also found that allowing a person to take a five-minute break is helpful. He allowed a client who would shut down to do this whenever she became overwhelmed, and after some time, she was able to focus and stay more engaged.
  • Communicate about sensitive issues when children are not present
    Dr. Mutchler emphasizes with clients that communication in front of children should always be civil and respectful. Any sensitive topics should be discussed when children are not present.

About Dr. Matt Mutchler
Dr. Matt Mutchler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and holds master's and doctoral degrees in human development and family studies with specializations in couples and family therapy. While working on his Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut, he discovered a passion for teaching. He currently teaches counseling psychology students at Delaware Valley University. Dr. Mutchler’s research focuses on counselor development and self-efficacy, ethical dilemmas, and developing methods to work conjointly with divorced or separated parents. He has presented at many national and international conferences, including the American Psychological Association, the International Society of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection, and the National Council on Family Relations.

Download the full journal article.