Silent Harm: How Poor Communication Between Co-Parents Affects Children

father carrying crying child

In Colorado, effective co-parenting during a separation or after divorce is crucial for the well-being of children. Studies show that children have better outcomes in cases where there is low parental contact. Despite this, many parents struggle to communicate effectively. Poor communication during separation or after divorce leads to confusion, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, conflict, and emotional distress for everyone involved, especially the children. Poor communication can manifest in many ways, from hostile or aggressive interactions to complete silence and avoidance.

Poor communication and high-conflict parenting can lead to:

  1. Emotional Distress in Children
    • Insecurity and Anxiety: Children often feel caught in the middle of their parents' conflicts. When communication is poor, children may feel insecure and anxious about their family’s stability or responsible for communicating to “keep the peace”.
    • Confusion and Mixed Messages: Inconsistent or conflicting messages from parents can leave children confused about rules, expectations, and even where they are supposed to be or where to go home. It places the children directly in the middle.
    • Emotional Burden: Children may feel the need to mediate or choose sides, leading to undue emotional stress and feelings of guilt or responsibility for their parents' conflicts, responsibility to solve the conflict, and powerless. Children oftentimes will seek to find an alternative outlet or source of feeling of control which can lead to unhealthy behaviors.
  2. Behavioral Issues
    • Acting Out: Emotional distress can manifest as behavioral problems in children, including aggression, defiance, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, legal trouble and trouble at school.
    • Withdrawal: Children may withdraw socially or emotionally, struggling to engage with peers and adults or becoming overly self-reliant. They may express suicidal ideation of cutting behaviors as an outlet.
  3. Long-term Impact
    • Relationship Patterns: Studies show that poor communication between parents and high parental conflict models unhealthy relationship dynamics which can affect the children’s future relationships, employment relations, and communication skills.
    • Mental Health: Prolonged exposure to parental conflict is linked to long-term mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and low self-esteem.

When KHM Law opened our firm, we began an effort to engage in self-study to improve our own lives, but also to better serve our client. We have a library of resources available to our clients and often share those resources to clients. The first reading assignment for our entire staff was the BIFF book by Bill Edy. Years later, Edy published "BIFF for Co-Parents: Your Guide to Difficult Co-Parent Texts, Emails, and Social Media Posts." The attorneys at KHM Law frequently recommend this book to our clients that understandably struggle in their co-parenting relationship and communications with the other parent.

Edy’s book provides a practical framework for improving communication. BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm—a method designed to reduce conflict and foster more productive interactions.

Some takeaways from the book:

  1. Brief:
    • Keep It Short: Lengthy messages are overwhelming, more likely to spark conflict, and more likely to contain unnecessary information. By keeping communications brief, co-parents can convey necessary information without inviting unnecessary arguments.
  2. Informative:
    • Stick to the Facts: Rather than getting drawn into emotional or accusatory language, focusing on factual, relevant information helps keep discussions on track and solutions oriented.
  3. Friendly:
    • Maintain a Positive Tone: Even when discussing difficult topics, a friendly tone can help de-escalate potential conflicts and make the interaction more pleasant and productive. There is no room for accusations, blaming or name calling because such communications are destructive.
  4. Firm:
    • Be Clear and Confident: Clarity and confidence help in setting boundaries and expectations without appearing aggressive or confrontational.

Other Tidbits to Assist with Positive Communication and to Improve your Co-Parenting Relationship

  1. Pause Before Responding: Take a moment to calm down and think before replying to messages. Prescribe to the 24-hour rule if necessary.
  2. Have a Positive Mindset. If you are overwhelmed by communicating with your ex, pick a time in which you are going to review communications from them in which you can mentally prepare yourself. Commit yourself to a time, once a day which works for you and schedule it. Turn off all other notifications.
  3. Use “I” Statements: Frame your communications around your own experiences and needs rather than blaming or criticizing the other parent, or assuming to understand their experiences of feelings.
  4. Keep your Communications Focused on the Purpose. Communications generally can be categorized into three categories: Informational (FYI), Inquiry (PR), Discussion (Agenda). FYI communications are simply to share factual information, no response should be necessary nor requested, unless the recipient needs clarification which then they would ask a PR question, focused narrowly on the issue. PR communications, stand for please respond, and are inquiries for information or agreement. Agenda communications are those which need discussion for resolution, such as selecting an activity for a child or choosing a mental health provider.
  5. Stay Child-Focused: Always keep the best interests of your children at the center of your communication.

Poor communication between co-parents can have significant, lasting effects on children. All parents should strive to improve their interactions, reduce conflict, and create a more supportive and stable environment for their children. Effective communication is not just about exchanging information; it’s about building a cooperative relationship that prioritizes the well-being of your children. By committing to better communication practices, co-parents can help mitigate the negative impacts of their separation and ensure a healthier, happier future for their children. KHM Law attorneys seek to support our clients in better communication practices in our commitment to partner with our clients towards a successful future for them.