Denver High Conflict Seminar
Bill and the AFCC/MDIC Conference Organizers
On Friday, February 24, I gave an all-day seminar to lawyers, mental health professionals and parent educators on Managing High Conflict Personalities. There were over 100 in attendance and we met at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. The sponsors were two organizations: the Colorado Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) and the Metropolitan Denver Interdisciplinary Committee (MDIC).
In discussing how to help high conflict families, we focused on a lot of the simple tips that professionals can use with clients who have high conflict personalities, or are dealing with a divorced parent who has a high conflict personality. I think I communicated more clearly than ever before, that we need to shift our emphasis – a real paradigm shift – from making decisions for parents to assisting them in learning skills and requiring them to use these skills in making their own decisions to their maximum ability. As family law professionals, we have struggled with how to make the best decisions for high conflict parents – especially those with borderline, narcissistic and other personality disorders. The answer seems to be in helping parents play a stronger role themselves in making parenting plans and other decisions.
Of course, this shift is not easy and high conflict parents will resist learning new skills and as professionals we will resist providing the structure and practice that it takes to help parents use these skills to their maximum ability. But research into treatments for borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder (Dialectical Behavior Therapy out of Seattle and Schema Therapy out of New York) show that even personality-disordered people can learn small skills in small steps with lots of repetition. The skills we focus on are based on our New Ways for Families program: flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors. Within each of these skills are smaller skills, including writing emails that are B.I.F.F. responses: Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. Making proposals is another skill, and expecting people to make two proposals for any problem really helps reinforce flexible thinking. (I’m even telling myself more these days to think of two proposals when I address a problem with anyone – even decisions I have to make on my own!)
In the afternoon, we focused on the skills professionals need to learn, to help our clients practice learning skills. This is based on our New Ways for Families method. These included:
1) Providing structure. This is surprisingly hard for professionals to do, as we prefer to just talk about problems with clients. The paradigm shift is to provide a structure for the client to learn skills, with specific tasks, writing exercises, deadlines and practice, practice, practice.
2) Reinforcing parent self-management. As professionals, we are quick to tell parents what to do and what not to do. Instead, we need to teach them how to deal with hostile communications, decision-making and managing their own stress (the second most important parenting skill, according to recent research). Then, we need to give them practice opportunities to reinforce using these skills. In a sense, its harder for a high conflict parent to learn new interpersonal skills than it is for a lawyer to pass the bar exam. So lots of practice scenarios can really help.
3) Guiding parents to teach their children skills for resilience. In our New Ways for Families method, we have parents learn and practice the 3 skills, then have them meet with their children to teach and reinforce the same skills. This helps the children learn from their own parents, rather than from a professional. It helps reinforce the parents in using these skills and it shows the whole family what good methods are for solving future problems. One of the concerns raised in the seminar was preparing children to meet with parents from whom they are estranged or alienated. In the New Ways method, the child and the “favored” or custodial parent meet first and discuss preparing for meeting next with the child and the “rejected” or “absent” parent. This builds support for this new contact and the Parent-Child Counselor gets familiar with the child before this meeting. However, there is no other preparation for the child, as this is very short-term counseling focused on learning the three skills, not doing deep therapy. That can come later, if necessary.
4) Assisting clients to make decisions to their maximum ability. This skill is especially important for lawyers, mediators and judges, as this means before any decisions are made, the professional quizzes the parents on what they have learned and asks them to describe how they would deal with a new parenting conflict. This puts the emphasis on each parents strengthening their own skills, rather than focusing on the other parents inadequacies. If possible, asking or requiring the parents to make proposals, to respond respectfully to proposals, to manage their own emotions and to communicate more briefly and focused on information rather than opinions or reactions. While this takes professional patience, it is far more rewarding to assist high conflict parents in having small successes, rather than to be frustrated by making decisions for parents which often aren’t followed anyway.
I really enjoyed meeting with this group – and seeing the snow-covered Denver mountains at sunrise was a real bonus!