Let’s Just Call a Therapist

Here’s the story: 8-year-old Jenny says she doesn’t want to see her other parent anymore. “He’s mean” or “She yells a lot.” Jenny’s mom and dad are newly divorced. Jenny seems depressed and each parent blames the other. One of them says Jenny is just fine. The other says she is developing a mental disorder because of the other parent’s deficiencies. Both could be right…or wrong. One parent decides Jenny needs therapy. Of course, the therapist will help Jenny be happy again, or maybe discover that Jenny’s other parent is a narcissist, and wouldn’t that be good for the court case? Because of course the therapist would have to say something to the court…wouldn’t she?
There are a couple of problems with this story. Number one, Jenny is 8. She will be depressed because her parents are going through a divorce. When you are 8, or 18 for that matter, the reasons for divorce don’t make any sense. Counseling when a child is reacting normally to a life event can sometimes do more harm than good. Suddenly, Jenny is the one with a problem, instead of admitting that Jenny’s mom and dad have created a problem and she simply needs some love and understanding. But then there’s the idea that a therapist is going to step in, make Jenny feel a lot better (which might happen if Jenny has a lot to talk about), and discover the reasons for Jenny’s depression is the other parent (which also might be right). That’s where the story gets complicated. Even if the therapist thinks that Jenny’s dad is a narcissist or her mom is possibly bipolar, Jenny’s therapist can’t do a thing about that! She’s Jenny’s therapist and must keep everything Jenny says to her confidential, while she simply helps her with coping skills. But why not just sign a release so that the therapist can violate Jenny’s trust?
Here’s the reality. Therapists have an ethical obligation – especially to children – to protect not only their client’s mental health but to maintain their trust. Unless that therapist has been ordered by the court to be in an evaluative role, or one in which abuse is alleged and the court needs information to protect the child, a therapist should not go to court and talk about what a child has revealed in therapy, even with the child’s permission. I have been on the witness stand and the questions that get posed by attorneys can cause a therapist to say things that she and the child never agreed to. It’s just too risky. Additionally, therapists should be very careful about getting involved with a child during a pending court case. Kids, especially older ones, are well aware that there is a court case pending; which means they are also aware that one parent doesn’t want them to talk to the therapist, while the other one does. So, now the therapy itself becomes a mechanism in which the child is further placed in the middle of the co-parent conflict. Therapists should be a helping professional, not one who becomes part of the problem.
I have used a lot of “shoulds” in this post, but I also recognize there are exceptions to every rule. However, I want to caution all parents, divorce professionals, and officers of the court to not just assume all therapists understand high-conflict divorce cases. It’s a specialty that those of us who do it have trained for years to understand. Just because someone is on your insurance plan doesn’t make them qualified for the kind of work it takes to protect children from the business of divorce (and it is a business). The AFCC (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts) has published guidelines for court-involved therapists. It can be found at: https://www.afccnet.org/Portals/0/PublicDocuments/CEFCP/Guidelines%20for%20Court%20Involved%20Therapy%20AFCC.pdf
When looking for a therapist to work with children in divorce cases, ask them if they are aware of the AFCC organization or their guidelines. If they say no, chances are they have not been trained by the experts in this field. I also recommend that all divorce professionals (including judges and attorneys) become members of the AFCC, as it is the only organization that brings together judges, attorneys, guardians, therapists, and anyone else who works with this population, to share ideas and formulate policies that are respected and used worldwide.
If you are a parent needing reliable, evidenced-based information about divorce, custody, divorce professionals, etc., visit https://www.afccnet.org/Resource-Center/Reso.urces-for-Families. You may discover that Jenny doesn’t need a therapist, but that you and the other parent have some difficult work ahead of you to allow her to just be a kid.