Providing the tools to help parents gain confidence in their parenting skills so they can create the family life they desire.

06 May 2011

Real Questions from Real Parents #7 – Therapist’s Role in Divorce

Several parents have raised similar questions regarding a therapist for children in the specific context of divorce. The role of a children’s therapist should be very clear, and there are issues that arise when parents are no longer making joint decisions for their children. If you are a parent facing or post-divorce and are pursuing therapy, here are things that you might find helpful.

Often in a divorce, parents act without the consent of the other. Sometimes this means securing a therapist without informing the other parent of the intention. This is not necessarily a problem, so long as the therapist does not align with the parent bringing the children, or assume that the other parent is not interested in the well-being of the children. While the law does not require the consent of both parents for therapy, ethics and good practice would involve both parents in the process. Both parents would at least be aware of the therapy process.

This does not always occur, however, and questions are raised as to the allegiance of the therapist. Therapists are neutral third parties, there to form a therapeutic relationship with the child and offer appropriate interventions. If the therapist is practicing ethically, he or she remains unbiased and uninvolved in the parental conflicts. Any information shared about parents is used to assist the child with coping skills, conflict resolution and processing.

One of the questions that I am asked frequently is if one parent is taking the children to a therapist, should the other parent begin taking the kids to a different therapist. The short answer is no. Every therapist has a different set of skills and unique approach. A child can benefit from different therapists, but not simultaneously. If the children are truly benefiting from therapy, there is no need to double up. Doing so is sometimes seen as power play among the parents, clearly about what the court or judge thinks about their parenting rather than a focus on the children.

Further, children are far more intuitive than for which they are given credit. If they are going to a therapist to alleviate parental guilt over the divorce, to create a court record of “good parenting”, or to manipulate the situation in any form, they know it. This awareness creates resistance and confusion, thus impeding the process of therapy regardless of therapeutic alliance. Children should never be made to feel as pawns for any reason.

Lastly, regardless of who found the therapist, both parents have the right to be made aware of progress in treatment. Confidentiality can be maintained while still allowing for both parents to understand goals, intervention strategies and successes. You can contact the therapist and request a consultation to determine status. Further, if you believe that the therapist is not acting in the best interest of your children for any reason, you can request termination. However, that decision needs to be made with caution and thought for the well-being and health of the child. Your personal impression of the therapist or why he or she was involved is not nearly as important as the rapport with the child and ability to help the child.

Children often are caught in the middle in a divorce, therapy aside. Children will almost always need help adjusting to the new normal and making sense of their feelings. Therapy is a great way to accomplish those goals and set your children up for well-being. If the children are under 12, play therapy is the best approach, in my opinion. Regardless of messiness or difficulty in a divorce, therapy should be beneficial, enjoyable and rewarding for any client – especially children.

  • julie andrews

    I do not agree with the therapist’s role. No one can help, if husband and wife are not comfortable together. Its sad but true.

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  • brenna

    I agree that the role of the therapist is not to help the husband and wife work things out. The role of a therapist for children affected by divorce, however, remains influential and helpful in processing, coping and addressing feelings that the divorce creates. While the husband and wife may not resolve issues amongst themselves, the therapist can assist in children’s emotional, social and behavioral issues.

  • Simon

    Brenna, an interesting post. I am 18 months separated and in the process of divorce. My 13 year old daughter is seeing a therapist who is working with her on a number of things including her feelings, her education, etc. There are a number of areas where parental involvement is required but my daughter wants the therapist to be a “safe place” for herself and does not want either of her parents talking to the therapist. Any thoughts on the way forward? Simon

    • brenna

      I will be in touch via email.

  • Mike

    Brenna, I am several years post divorce with a child who has turned to drugs and alcohol. I contacted his most recent therapist for a meeting so that I might understand what is going on in his head (I am the non-custodial parent)
    Even before meeting me the therapist let my son know I was coming in, wanting to know how he felt about it, and was repeating remarks I had made to her over the phone while setting the appointment. Is this normal?

    Than you

    • brenna

      I will respond via email.

  • slr_06

    I realize this is an old post but your article comes really close to answering my question and I wonder if you would be able to clarify a point. I started myself and my 11 year-old with an LMHC intending to participate in family therapy, but the therapist has turned out to be the primary therapist for my husband who has now been diagnosed as bipolar. I feel my daughter and I should be seeing our own therapists. My daughter is not comfortable with the woman, either. He has specifically disallowed me to let my daughter see another counselor. What can I do in this situation?