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Why and How Children of Divorced Parents Should Receive Counseling – Part 2

As a Tucson child therapist, I have conducted therapy with hundreds of children of divorced parents over two decades.   

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I discussed the critically practical effects of counseling for children of divorce, even when that divorce is seemingly harmonious.  I have received very positive feedback from parents, pediatricians, attorneys, and fellow mental health professionals regarding the content from Part 1.

Now, in Part 2, I shall discuss the list of agreements divorcing parents should make to protect the sanctity of the counseling process, such that the child can get what they need from the therapeutic process.

Why is this list of agreements of paramount importance? Because as I said in Part 1, aggregation of a voluminous amount of social science research clearly indicates the most important predictor of whether a child will successfully adapt to the changing circumstances divorce brings is the presence of a Mentor.  And we all know that divorce can force children to be submerged in highly toxic environments, necessitating the kind of sage and protective Mentorship that requires a high degree of training in order to fend off parents’ intentional – or unintentional – efforts to triangulate the Therapist/Mentor in their conflict. 

After working as a family law expert over the last decade, here are what I consider to be critical components of the agreement parents should make, and/or the facets of an order a judge should make, in order to protect the children as they begin pre- or post-divorce therapy.

Let me preface this list by clarifying that parents should likely choose a therapist who has at least five years of experience working with higher conflict situations, who specializes in working with children, and who has worked with attorneys in the past.  The reason for these recommendations is there are many curveballs that present themselves when working with divorced parents that counselors or therapists need to understand before beginning this type of very difficult work.    

Protecting children from the toxic effects of divorce

Here is the list of characteristics that protect children undergoing therapeutic intervention:

— Agreement that parents will not triangulate the therapist into their disagreements about each other, and understand that any counselor who does this kind of work does not wish to be pulled into Court.  Of course, if the child is undergoing court-ordered therapy this is considered forensic treatment and often means the therapist should have an expectation they will be corresponding with the court in some manner.  Parents then need to educate themselves on the difference between a simple clinical therapy intervention versus a forensic therapy or court-ordered therapeutic intervention.  The ground rules in these two situations can be notably different.   

If divorced parents triangulate the therapist into their conflict, they give their child no refuge from nuclear level toxicity.

— Agreement that parents will use the exact same information template to update the therapist on how the child is doing week to week. Here is the Pre-Appointment Questionnaire we use in order to make sure parents feel like they are being treated equitably.  Please feel free to print out this form and distribute or tweak. 

Agreement that the parents will not require the therapist to testify, and that the parents will not request the meeting records of that therapist.  Parents should agree that if they are requesting information about treatment they would allow that therapist to write a summary of treatment letter and this will satisfy the needs for information.  Obtaining the raw progress notes of the therapist destroys the promise of confidentiality and often means a therapist needs to discontinue treatment.  Who wins in this situation?  There are rare cases where requesting the raw therapy notes may be reasonable, but those situations tend to be much more rare. 

— Agreement that one parent can serve as the information point person if the therapist needs to call one parent after the meeting.  Therapists, like everyone else, run on tight schedules and trying to get both parents on the phone after every meeting is often nearly impossible.  Divorced parents have to understand that if they want a high-quality therapist to be involved with their child, they are going to need to flex for the therapist. 

Agreement that if the therapist ends up collecting a compelling body of data indicating either or both parents should be assessed for various kinds of psychological problems, that parent will consider the opinion of that therapist seriously.  It is common for a therapist working with children of divorce to come upon a compelling body of data indicating one or both parents should be assessed for certain kinds of issues that need to be ruled out.  Again, if parents want a high-quality therapist, they need to put some “skin in the game”, and show that they are as invested in growing as their child is.  The way a parent does that is to make themselves as vulnerable as their child has made themselves by being willing to work with a third-party professional.  In other words, parents who are divorced need to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk.

— Agreement that if either parent has a problem with the therapist, they will not impulsively complain about the therapist, but rather run their concern through several filters. If that concern survives a serious filtration process, then they agree that they will use a mediator if necessary to talk with the other parent about their concern. Too often divorced parents end up impulsively complaining about the therapist either to their attorney or to a professional board.  This results in not only ruinous consequences for the child, but for the therapist, and ultimately, the parents themselves.

What parents don’t understand is, in any community, there is a very very small group of highly qualified therapists who are willing to work with their child, given working with divorced parents can often be unspeakably difficult.  Therapists are charged with the task of doing an incredible amount of “emotional labor”, as my esteemed colleague Dr. Dena Baumgartner has pointed out.  When parents send out signals that they are not willing to stick with the above-outlined agreements, the number of therapists willing to work with them often goes to zero. 

— Agreement that neither parent will ask the child about what they discussed with the therapist.   

— Agreement that both parents will let the therapist know when the child discusses their opinions about the therapist. There needs to be a lubricated pipeline of information flowing to the therapist such that the therapist is aware of the ongoing perceptions of the child. As either parent updates the therapist and what the child said about the therapist or the therapy process, that parent will “CC” the other parent such that all three are on the same page.

— Agreement that both parents will not try to play the role of the therapist, but rather will inform the therapist of sticky situations that they want to consult the therapist about.  The concerned parent agrees they will simultaneously communicate with the other parent to ask for a powwow whether it is by phone or physical meeting.  This is the only way to ensure that the therapy for the child of divorce is protected. 

Handling the nuclear powered anger divorce can bring requires careful handling.

— Agreement that parents will make a Good Faith Effort to engage in co-parenting therapy, separate from the therapy their child is engaging in.  In the vast majority of divorce cases, parents end up having different kinds of ground rules across a broad variety of domains such as rules about homework, bedtime, dating, chores, etc.  If you want your child to have an internalized moral compass, then you as a parent need to be invested enough that you will put aside your ego, and convictions you may have about how bad the other parent is, and engage in co-parenting therapy

That kind of therapy is designed to ensure the parents hammer out a set of common parenting ground rules, which will help your child understand that even in the worst kind of conflict there needs to be a basic level of collaborativeness.  Not doing this sets your child up to have clinically significant problems, including poorly developed conflict resolution skills. Of course, there are numerous factors that may mean this list needs to be modified or tweaked, whether it is by parents, mediators, or judges.  But I consider these elements to be critical to – at least consider – as an agreement is being hammered out such that the sanctity of the therapy process is protected enough that the child will actually get what they need to grow, instead of becoming impaired, due to the divorce.

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Meet Doctor Brunner

Dr. Thomas (Tom) Brunner is a Tucson based psychologist and published expert who has a 20 year track record of clinical excellence, scientific research, teaching, publications, awards and podcast interviews.  He is the senior author of a psychological measure adapted into 14 languages worldwide, and has written over 250 blogs, many of them have gone viral.  He is revolutionizing the field of career guidance with his fresh and trademarked approach that is spreading like wildfire. Sign up here to be notified of soon to be published book, Find Your Real Me: Career Guidance Making You Truly Free.