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Back-to-School Survival Tips for High-Conflict Families

How to Adapt When Your Reality Requires Extraordinarily Different Rules

Back-to-School Tips for High-Conflict Divorced Parents
Brittany Wong’s recent article in HuffPost, “10 Smart Back-to-School Tips for Divorced Parents”, offers helpful guidance to the lucky 90% of divorcing or divorced parents who are emotionally healthy and enjoy a reasonable relationship. Because the vast majority of my experience as a family law attorney comes from working with parents in high-conflict (HC) divorce cases, I see Wong’s article through a very different lens. 

If you’re new to the term HC divorce, it’s one in which there is ongoing, unrelenting malice between the parties. These divorces, and their post-decree needs, persist far past the typical window of divorce…and in some cases, the court actions never end. There are often allegations (both valid and unsubstantiated) of domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, coercive control, substance abuse, and mental illness in high-conflict situations that make them complex and volatile. Often, they include multiple no-contact orders and/or orders of protection. Child support and parenting time issues are battles and often the stakes are high for the children. Because of the level of conflict between the parents, they are unable to communicate effectively about their children without clear guidelines, 3rd party support and/or the threat of court sanctions.

​If you are one of the unlucky HC 10%, the back-to-school suggestions in Wong’s article are DEFINITELY NOT FOR YOU. In fact, most of them can be counterproductive and several can be downright dangerous. To help parents in HC situations navigate back-to-school time, I have reframed the suggestions in this article for you:

#1: Splitting Back-to-School Costs
In a HC relationship, this is unlikely to happen and will lead to an unproductive argument. The parent who pays support will argue that back-to-school costs are included in their monthly payment. Also, HC relationships contain constant accusations that funds intended for the child are not being spent properly.
My recommendation:
Make sure a provision exists in your decree that expressly states who is responsible for back-to-school expenses, outline the amount, and define the process for back-to-school reimbursement. 

#2: Create a Shared Google Account
In a HC relationship, this is nothing but a control mechanism. One parent will see this as the other trying to control them, and this will lead to more tension, fighting, and disputes.
My recommendation:
Each parent should provide a concise weekly summary of each child’s events and deliver this via email. This weekly summary should always be sent by a set day and time each week, and it should provide a brief summary of key events (school, medical, extracurricular, etc.) about both the past week and the week to come. I really like the ‘10 words or less’ recommendation for each summary item, as it helps parents stick to the point and eliminates emotional adverbs and adjectives. Each parent should understand and remember that written records are always key in the HC world.  

#3: Drop the Kids off Together on the First Day of School
In a HC relationship, this could end in a police incident. I wish I were kidding. 
My recommendation:
The parent who has parenting time is the only parent who should transport children to or from school on any regular or special day UNLESS there is an expressed agreement in writing in advance (good luck with that).

#4: If Your Ex Can’t Be There for Day 1, Text a Pic
For a HC relationship, this is terrible advice. I know it’s counter-intuitive, as it sounds so considerate on the surface. In my world, this will only be perceived as a taunt (“I’m here, you’re not, hahaha).
My recommendation:
Keep the picture for yourself UNLESS the other party requests it. If the request is made, kindly forward it without any editorializing; if they don’t request it, don’t share.

#5: Let Your Kids’ Teachers Know Who’s Who in Your Blended Family
This is ill-advised for HC situations for a variety of reasons. At the end of the day, there are only two parents with legal standing in the eyes of the school. 
My recommendation:
If it is critical for your child’s academic or social development to share information about your home situation, do so briefly and free of editorializing. ALSO, keep in mind the limited capacity teachers have for communication. Elementary teachers have nearly 40 students…and some have 80 or 120 in schools with specialization. I know of many schools who place a limit of 3-5 sentences for parent emails to keep the reading manageable for teachers. Finally, remember that legitimate safety emergencies should be called in to the principal or delivered in person…often, school emails are not read until the end of the day.

#6: Attend Parent-Teacher Conferences Together
In HC relationships, this type of interaction will only introduce untoward personal conflicts into the child’s classroom…not to mention be unproductive while yielding subsequent disagreements and conflicting accounts of the meeting.
My recommendation:
Most schools are willing to offer two separate conferences in extreme circumstances. In cases where this is simply not doable, or if you feel that it is an unfair imposition, arrange for an email or recording of the conference as an alternative.

#7: If an Ex Lives Out-of-State, Have Him/Her Call in to a Conference
This isn’t necessarily a bad idea if the school and teacher are willing/able to accommodate the request, and the parent can listen without interjecting, but an asynchronous recording would be just as informative while better minimizing the conflict that stems from live interactions. Plus, there is always a documented version of the meeting asynchronously, which reduces conflicting interpretations/accounts of the meeting.

#8: Set Times to Debrief Together
In a HC situation, this is an explosive idea that will lead to new arguments and accusations at best, and court orders and arrests at worst. 
My recommendation:
Abandon the commonly-touted practice of co-parenting (which surely isn’t working anyway in a HC relationship) and embrace parallel parenting. Co-parenting is not for you! If there is a court-mandated weekly summary, that practice eliminates face-to-face confrontations while still providing both parties with the necessary information to parallel parent effectively.

#9: Don’t Leave Your Ex’s Side out of the Family Tree
In any situation, a child should be responsible for collecting this information from each parent…as they are for all school assignments. Working from that belief, neither parent should need to contact the other for this (or any) school assignment…the child will lead this communication.
My recommendation:
Use the weekly summary provided by the other parent along with flyers, emails, and school portal communications to stay informed about homework assignments and projects. Each parent should be sure to sign up for all necessary school information accounts at the start of the year and maintain the responsibility of keeping themselves informed. Do not contact the other parent for this type of information.

#10: Create a Group Chat to Discuss Your Child’s Wins and Progress
NOPE. NEVER. In a HC situation, parties should seek to minimize, not increase, interactions and communications with each other. In fact, many HC parents employ a parenting coordinator to mitigate unfounded accusations and help keep those necessary communications timely, appropriate, and civil.
My recommendation:
I strongly encourage the weekly summaries described above. These summaries ensure important information is shared and documented while minimizing the never-productive contact between the HC parties.

I hope this helps parents in the 10% high-conflict world navigate the tenuous back-to-school landscape. Recognize that your situation falls outside of the intuitive co-parenting norms embraced in the mainstream, let go of those practices, and shed any guilt you’re harboring about failing to function like the 90%. 

About the author…
Jason Castle has practiced as a family lawyer in Arizona for the past fourteen years; he specializes in complex, high-conflict cases. He’s also a former prosecutor & social worker.
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