Coping With A High-Conflict Ex During A Child Custody Battle

Make it your priority to remain level-headed

Child custody can be one of the hardest things a parent and child goes through. Many parents feel as though putting their family through the family court system is something that should be avoided at all costs. However, with the rise in divorce numbers, many parents end up going through child custody proceedings as part of the divorce agreement. Parents who are not married are encouraged to go through family courts for a parenting agreement and visitation rights.

According to Anne Cerney “‘Child Custody’ is becoming an outdated concept” (2019). Courts have begun to realize that awarding custody to one parent objectifies children and leads to resentfulness on the other side. New guidelines are being developed, in many states, based on current research that:

  • Children fare best with access to both parents,
  • children can adapt to new roles of each parent during and after divorce, and
  • the gender of a parent does not dictate that person’s ability to parent, their commitment to their children, or their role in the parenting.

Children’s ability to cope with divorce, separation, and different parenting roles depends heavily on parental conflict. “The more intense and frequent your conflict with the other parent around child-related issues like vacations, schools, extra-curricular activities, medical and religious decisions, the stronger the negative impact on your child” (Cerney, A., 2019).

Components of a parenting plan

Although you don’t want to create unnecessary conflict with your ex, disagreements with parenting styles, judgement, parenting ability, or negative effects on the child can lead to a drawn out legal battle. You and your ex may not agree on the components of a parenting plan, and one of you may want to fight in court over these decisions.

You will have to come to agree, or the court will decide, as to who will make child-related decisions after separation. This will include decisions about:

  • Education – Where your child will attend school, who will have communication with the school, who makes decisions about homework, supplies, attendance, emergency contacts, will be responsible for calendaring events, and deciding if the parent will reside in the school district.
  • Medical – Who will be responsible for scheduling routine appointments, who communicates with health care professionals, who carries and communicates with insurance, and decisions about elective or specialized care, second opinions, emergency care, and more.
  • Religion – Where your child may worship and what religious education will exist.
  • Extra-curricular activities – Who will be responsible for selecting activities to enroll, terminating participation, communication with coaches, selecting emergency contact, and calendaring events.
  • Shared parenting time – When you and your ex split, your child will be spending time with each of you in your two seperate homes. Who is responsible for the child on which days and how many overnights?

Dealing with a high-conflict custody dispute

When going through a high-conflict custody battle, it’s important to remain level-headed and stand your ground. Here are some tips for coping when your ex repeatedly tries to antagonize you over your custody arrangement:

  • Practice self awareness. Understand that you can’t change how the other individual behaves, but you can change the way you respond or contribute to the situation. High-conflict personalities who are manipulative or accustomed to getting their way are hard to deal with. Focus on what you know to be true about yourself and the situation, this will help you stay grounded.
  • Write it all down. Start keeping a journal where you document your interactions with your ex, as well as your own feelings. You’ll want to look for patterns that can help you create routines for dealing with the situation. Remember that the intent behind recording isn’t to attempt to change your ex’s behavior, but identify small changes that will make the situation easier for yourself and your children. Document document document, if you have had great difficulty in communicating with your ex, which has affected your ability to make decisions for your child, you want to show that co-parenting with him or her results in stalemate decision-making.
  • Surround yourself with positive influences. Make an intentional effort to surround yourself with positive people who will help you to be more assertive without making you more upset or adding drama.
  • Set boundaries with your ex. Put limits on when you’ll answer the phone, text, or meet to discuss things. Let them know that you’ll be available from 10am until 8pm (for example) and that your phone will be on silent before/after those times. If meeting to discuss, make sure you meet somewhere you feel comfortable – in public.
  • Compromise when appropriate. You don’t want to become a doormat or for one voluntary compromise to suggest that your ex can have their way all the time. However, it can be extremely effective to proactively offer up a compromise that’s important to your ex but doesn’t cost you more than you’re willing to give up. Try to be as flexible with your ex as you’d like them to be with you (Wolf, J., 2017).
  • Work with a lawyer you trust. Don’t attempt to navigate a bitter custody battle on your own. Hire someone who knows the custody laws in your state and has experience practicing family law. If money is an issue, contact your state Bar Association for referrals, legal services, and legal clinics in your area.
  • Develop a written parenting plan. Put your agreements down on paper so your have something to refer to. Situations will come up where there are disagreements on holidays, parenting times, or where either of you may ask for a change. Be sure to have all the stipulations written out, including details like transportation, when visits will start and end, and how you plan to handle school holidays and sick days as well.

Most parents will see improvement with the steps outlined above. However, if you have a particularly high-conflict custody dispute on your hands with an individual who’s become aggressive or unstable, it may be safer to back off. The following recommendations are for situations where safety may be compromised by continuing to use rational communication methods:

  • Seek counseling. Especially if you are trying to co-parent with a narcissistic personality. Speaking with a professional will provide you a safe place to unload everything your dealing with. Counseling will provide you with strategies for coping and remaining differentiated from drama the ex is attempting to stir up.
  • Minimize contact. If your ex frequently lashes out at you, take steps to minimize contact with him or her. While zero contact isn’t recommended unless safety is an issue, it can be helpful to limit contact to conversations which are absolutely necessary.
  • Stay on topic. Avoid venturing off into topics that could worsen the conflict between you. For example, don’t bring up old arguments that aren’t likely to be resolved. Don’t allow yourself to react when your ex tries to stir up trouble with accusations or inflammatory words.
  • Consider a restraining order. This is only recommended in situations where your safety or your children’s safety is at risk. Never exaggerate circumstances in an effort to secure a restraining order, as this will only work against you. To get a restraining order, contact your local police station, or call 911 in the case of an emergency.

Finally, remember that the purpose of communication is to facilitate an ongoing relationship with the children – a relationship your children have a right to experience. Try to put your differences behind you and work toward developing a healthy co-parenting relationship. With work, it can get better than it is today.

Important reminder

You don’t have to like your ex, but you do need to keep your children in mind. During exceptionally dirty custody battles it’ll begin to feel very targeted and intentional, consistently bring yourself out of the thick of everything and continue to think in the best interest of the children. Continue to communicate with your children about their thoughts and feelings throughout the process and keep communication open. Encourage your children to come to you or other trusted family members when they need to talk, and remember, your kids can benefit from talking to a professional as well!

Make it apparent to judges, courts, and professionals that you are acting in the best interest of the children and continue to focus on equal rights for both parents. Be your children’s advocate! Don’t let them get stuck in the middle.

If you’re solely interested in coming up with a parenting schedule that either gives you that magic number of overnights or deprives your ex of reaching that magic number, your intentions will become obvious. Think about what works in keeping your child’s life seamless. If your ex is more available for parenting time during days or times, make them his or hers.

If you have a high-conflict ex, think about how you can minimize contact with them during transitions. You can make the transition a school day, and the parent will pick up from school and return to school. A grocery store parking lot or other public place is also optimal, do not communicate during transition, have the child move from one car to the other and email/ text anything needing to be communicated afterwards.

When possible, work with a mediator, parenting planner, and/or child specialist to get issues resolved outside of court. Even when you have two attorneys, it is possible to work with a mediator or parenting planner on your own to develop a plan for your situation.


Cerney, A., (April, 2019), 5 Tips for Coping With Divorce And Child Custody With A High-Conflict Ex

Wolf, J., (July 11, 2017), Liveaboutdotcom: 12 Helpful Tips for Dealing With a High Conflict Custody Dispute

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