Why New Ways for Families is Going Online
Why New Ways for Families is Going Online
© 2014 by Bill Eddy, LCSW, CFLS*
New Ways for Families of Separation and Divorce
New Ways for Families is a skills training method for potentially high-conflict families in separation and divorce. It’s a unique and innovative program, because it focuses heavily on the “4 Big Skills” of: Flexible Thinking, Managed Emotions, Moderate Behaviors and Checking Yourself. These are the interpersonal skills that are most difficult for high-conflict parents, yet teaching these skills the way we do has had a lot of success. They need to learn some very basic skills before they can absorb educational information about divorce, family court, conflict and parenting (which we also address).
The original, full model of New Ways for Families includes 6 Individual Counseling sessions for each parent with a separate Individual Counselor who is totally confidential and not allowed to speak about the case to anyone else involved. During these sessions, parents work with their Individual Counselor and a Workbook to practice the 4 Big Skills described above. There are writing exercises, discussions and role-play exercises possible with their Individual Counselor. Since these are relationship skills, we have always believed that they needed to be learned in a 1-to-1 relationship with a skilled counselor – a healthy relationship.
Immediately following the Individual Counseling, there are 3 Parent-Child Counseling sessions for each parent and the children. There is one Parent Child Counselor (PCC) who works with each parent and the children for these 3 sessions, so that the parents are never together, unless both of them request that for the last session. Each parent teaches their children the 4 Big Skills and uses these skills to listen to their children’s concerns in the separation or divorce. The PCC is not confidential.
Immediately following the Parent Child Counseling sessions, both parents meet with a mediator, collaborative divorce team, a judge acting neutrally (not the judge in their case if it goes to trial), or other out-of-court method to use their newly-strengthened skills to settle their own case out of court.
This new approach is being used in several family court systems in the United States (San Diego, California; Austin, Texas; Pine Bluff, Arkansas) and Canada (Calgary and Medicine Hat in Alberta province). The Canadian programs have funding ($500,000 each), which makes this short-term, skills-based counseling affordable for ALL families regardless of income, as well as funds for research on the program. The first two years’ results are showing that these skills are helping most high-conflict families stay out of court, as well as cooperating better in parenting, sharing the children with more contact for the “non-custodial” parent, and the children are feeling less stress, including sleeping better and doing better at school. (See Summary of the Social Return on Investment Report available at www.NewWays4Families.com.)
Other Models of New Ways for Families
While this is a great method and we are pursuing interest from several other cities, we want to make this approach available to the many families who could benefit, but do not yet have it in their family court systems. Money for the brief counseling seems to be the biggest concern, as well as lack of knowledge about the unique differences of this approach. Therefore, we have adapted it into the following models:
- Collaborative Divorce model (3 coaching sessions; 3 parent-child counseling sessions)
- Decision Skills Class (3 classes on the most basic skills, with Workbook exercises)
- Pre-Mediation Coaching (1-2 coaching sessions with a mediator, lawyer or counselor)
Each of these models is less expensive than the original, full model first described above. However, even with these other less-expensive models, the number of people we can teach directly is very small.
Left Brain vs. Right Brain Learning
At the core of New Ways for Families is the strong belief that high-conflict parents spend a lot more time feeling and acting in a defensive mode, than the average parent going through a separation or divorce. This seems related to the part(s) of the brain associated with relationships and personal defense – mostly located in the Right Brain. This appears to be where the survival mechanisms lie primarily, including the right amygdala, which can essentially shut down the brain’s “logical” thinking (more associated with the Left Hemisphere) and take over with “fight, flight or freeze” responses. This survival thinking tends to be characterized by a lot of: all-or-nothing thinking, intense emotions, extreme behaviors (associated with survival) and a preoccupation with blaming others.
Some brain researchers say that the Left Brain (“logical brain” with more analytical thinking, calm emotions, planning and consideration of multiple solutions to problems) is dominant most of the time, but that the Right Brain becomes dominant during crises and totally new experiences (Schore, 2003). Most education in our society focuses on Left Brain approaches, with lots of words, concepts and reflective thinking taught in a classroom with students mostly passively listening and occasionally having an opportunity to speak while everyone else listens. Unfortunately, this approach generally misses the educational needs of high-conflict parents who need a more active, relationship-focused experience – a more “Right Brain” experience, because their personalities are characterized by being stuck in defensive relationship emotions.
With this in mind, we have always believed that an in-person, 1-to-1 teaching method is best for potentially high-conflict parents. However, recent research into online teaching methods has caused us to reconsider. (Gordon and Horwitch, 2013; A Review, 2013) We realized that we could embrace a style of teaching which can be done online which addresses the specific needs of parents ordered to take parenting classes because of previous behavior problems (substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, alienation, false allegations), which could reach many more parents.
While online will always be less intensive than the ideal full New Ways for Families counseling model, it appears that it can equal live parenting classes and reach far more parents in need of relationship skills. The authors of the first online article noted that judges who preferred online parenting classes did so for the following reasons: “Self-pacing; No need to waive this important requirement; Multiple language choices; Available 24/7; No wait time to take the class; Potential for processing cases quicker and Provides parents with a choice.” (Gordon and Horwitch, 2013)
New Ways for Families Online: Co-Parenting, High-Conflict and Anger Management Class
In deciding to offer New Ways for Families online, as well as our in-person counseling, coaching and classroom teaching models, we realized several ways it will be particularly beneficial for high-conflict parents, including parents dealing with domestic violence.
- Safety: It can be used in a safe and confidential location. There is no risk of the other parent being in the same class or finding out where a class is held.
- Saves time: Parents do not need to drive to and from a class, potentially driving long distances and/or dealing with rush-hour traffic. Parents do not need to leave work early or miss work, nor have a live class take time away from being with their children. Online learning is growing rapidly in all areas of life, from healthcare to higher education, because it is universally accessible without travel, including in rural areas.
- Self-Directed Learning: Parents can take breaks during a class or take two classes back-to-back, based on their own schedules and emotional state. They can go back over material and review it again for better understanding. Many high-conflict parents say they need more review time.
- Reduces defensiveness: By taking an online class, highly-defensive parents (whether perpetrators of domestic violence or simply high-conflict without violence) can listen, read, do exercises and learn, without having to be concerned about the potentially negative opinions of the instructor or other people in the room. High-conflict parents and perpetrators of domestic violence are repeatedly distracted from learning because of their preoccupation with convincing those around them that they don’t have a problem and don’t need treatment – a problem that is made totally unnecessary by an online individual course.
- Personal Tone of Voice: The New Ways for Families Online classes are spoken by Bill Eddy, LCSW, CFLS, in a conversational tone of voice, developed from his twelve years’ experience as a child and family counselor. The listener can feel a direct connection with the speaker, without the distraction of other parents who may raise their own unrelated or frustrating issues. The material is also in writing, so that the parent can read and hear at the same time. Such learning through two methods of communication is especially important for high-conflict parents who have their own internal barriers to absorbing information by one method alone.
- Broad Knowledge of Law and Conflict Resolution: The presenter, Bill Eddy, has been a family lawyer for over 20 years (he's a Certified Family Law Specialist), and is an international author and speaker to therapists, mediators, lawyers and judges about the issues of high-conflict families in separation and divorce. He brings his knowledge of each of these professions into the class, including sharing recent research about parenting. He is on the part-time faculty of the National Judicial College and the part-time faculty of Pepperdine University School of Law. Based on his diverse background, he developed the New Ways for Families method specifically for high-conflict families, including domestic violence issues in its design.
What about Domestic Violence?
The New Ways for Families program in Calgary, Canada, is run by the YWCA, which provides much of the domestic violence counseling for perpetrators and victims/survivors in the area. They are having good success with New Ways for Families cases that previously had heavy police involvement, a history of domestic violence restraining orders and repeated court hearings about their children. The New Ways for Families skills have helped these parents “get on the same page” in the messages they give to their children and in making decisions – whether or not they have any direct contact, and whether or not there are restraining orders and supervised access. The New Ways skills are learned with a workbook, so that the parents never have to be together in the program. Learning the 4 Big Skills helps victim/survivors gain strength in their lives and in supporting their children. Perpetrators learn that the 4 Big Skills are very compatible with their group programs, since learning how to manage their emotions, use flexible thinking and check themselves helps them moderate their behavior and absorb the lessons of their programs. These skills are at the core of managing one’s anger. The online class incorporates teaching all of these skills.
In addition to our other models, we have realized that the 4 Big Skills of New Ways for Families can be offered online in a manner that speaks to the most appropriate learning methods of parents with potentially high-conflict personalities – while reaching many times more parents in need of these skills. Through audio tone of voice, repetition and simplicity, the qualities of our online classes can be equal to or greater than those of an in-person parenting class. In addition, our online class is taught by an attorney/mediator/therapist who also trains judges in managing high-conflict cases. By bringing this experience to the course, the participant can learn much broader ways of applying some very basic skills in dealing with a co-parent, high-conflict issues and anger management. While we always prefer the in-person counseling model, New Ways for Families is a paradigm shift that is showing results, so we want to offer it to as many people as possible at minimal cost.
Gordon, D. and Horwitch, L.R., Online or In Person, Information-Based or Skills Based, Emerging Trends in Parent Education for Divorcing/Separating Families: What Works? Family Court Review, June 2013.
Emery, R.E. and Schepard, A. A Review of Online Divorce Education Programs, Family Court Review, Vol 49, October 2011, 776-787.
Schore, A. N. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 61.
*Bill Eddy is a family lawyer, family counselor and family mediator. He is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author of several books, including: High Conflict People in Legal Disputes, Managing High-Conflict People in Court and The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress. www.HighConflictInstitute.com and www.NewWays4Families.com