Nine-year-old Austin is referred to counseling by his mother. She explains that he “hates his dad and never wants to see him again.” The behavior that brings Austin to counseling started occurring around the time his parents separated and has intensified as they approach the legal divorce stage of the marriage termination.
Austin avoids eye contact, is anxious, and appears fearful and quite upset at the thought of spending time with his father. He presents as emotionally fragile, connected to his mother and his mother’s family but afraid of even the words “father” or “dad.” Austin wants nothing to do with his father’s side of the family and has started referring to his father by his first name. His mother adds that she believes Austin is old enough to decide whether to see his father or not. She further supports Austin’s lack of contact with his father because he doesn’t allow Austin to have his cell phone with him at his house, makes him go to bed at 8:30 and yells at him if he does something wrong. In addition, Austin doesn’t get along with his father’s girlfriend. Thus, his mother would like to get my recommendation, which she can then present in court, that Austin not see or have a relationship with his father any longer.
The mirror neurons in my brain fire, and my empathy for this young man and his plight take over. I quickly align with Austin and his mother and want to advocate for him to not spend time with his father.
This scenario, often referred to as conflicted parenting, high-conflict parenting or parental alienation, plays out time and time again in counseling offices and schools nationwide. Few counselors know the research on parental alienation syndrome, the damage it can cause or the increased conflict brought on these families by what are the best of intentions of the mental health community. (Note: The existence of parental alienation syndrome or parental alienation disorder remains a topic of heated debate; a disorder by that name is not included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)
Key terms in this field include “aligned parent” (the parent the child has aligned or teamed up with); “target parent” (the parent the child is seemingly against); and “conflicted child” (the child caught in the middle of the parents’ conflicted relationship).
Counselors are often brought into these battles unknowingly, with the aligned parent attempting to “team up” with the counselor to advocate for the child against the other parent. The aligned parent and child may say derogatory things about the target parent, take minor issues and catastrophize them, and avoid anything that has to do with the target parent. The aligned parent and child may be disrespectful, express an extreme fear or hatred of the target parent and sometimes even fabricate events to make the target parent appear evil and/or dangerous.
Damage of conflicted parenting
Untreated, conflict during a separation can result in both short- and long-term damage to the very children the parents are attempting to protect. A staggering amount of documented research finds that marital conflict negatively affects children’s brain development. Behavior, core values and even perceptions of self are internalized through interactions with our caregivers.
Conflict in relationships is inevitable and unavoidable and can thus lead to either healthy or unhealthy development, depending on the social interactions we are exposed to in our youth. Two vital skills learned during childhood are the ability to resolve conflict and regulate affect. Those around us model behaviors that can be beneficial, such as psychosocial and self-regulation skills, cognitive flexibility, emotional regulation and problem solving. But in the case of conflicted parenting, the adults may be modeling anxious and avoidant behaviors. Children can internalize these behaviors, thus facilitating their own dysfunctional psychosocial skills and relationships and creating self-sabotaging characteristics of weakened self-concept and diminished self-efficacy.
The role of the counseling community
When these cases are brought to the attention of counselors, it is imperative to recognize what is occurring in the conflicted parenting dynamics and to determine who the “client” will be. All too often, counselors align with one parent against another parent, honestly believing they are helping. Instead, they may be increasing the level of harm. It is not uncommon for a counselor who is unaware about the research on conflicted parenting to make such comments as “He is 10 years old and should be able to make his own decisions,” or “She is functioning much better without having contact with her mother at all.” In these instances, counselors may be supporting the conflict between the parents and aligning with the anxiety and fear felt by the child instead of using their own critical thinking to try and help the child develop emotional regulation and critical thinking skills.
As the ACA Code of Ethics makes clear, as counselors we encourage client growth and development, respect developmental and cultural issues, and avoid doing harm while advocating for our clients as needed. When you focus on the child as the client, your services and approach may look very different than if you focus on one of the parents as your client. Only by assessing the big picture can counselors provide appropriate and ethical services to the client, whoever that is determined to be.
Family courts often deal with high-conflict separation and parenting cases, which result in an unusually large amount of resources being utilized on a minority of placement cases year after year. These courts also recommend children caught in these cases into counseling. However, our experience has been that the mental health community often aligns with one parent and the child against another parent, thereby entering into, escalating and keeping the conflict going.
Because of this experience, we worked with our area court system, attorneys and mental health professionals to create a service known as Child’s Best Interest (CBI) in 2011. The service has been very well received by parents, judges and attorneys since its inception. Families are referred into CBI by various sources, including attorneys, judges, members of the faith community, parents and even school systems.
With this article, we want to share some of the lessons learned while providing this highly emotional and intensive service.
Education, supervision, experience
When working within any specialty situation, we are ethically required as counseling professionals to have the necessary education, supervision and experience. In it no different with CBI. One of the most critical issues with CBI is the initial and ongoing training of all the professionals involved. Without the appropriate education on conflicted parenting, counselors will continue to enter into the parental conflict and quickly align with the aligned parent and conflicted child.
Education involves reading and discussing the research on conflicted parenting and parental alienation. Supervision with someone strong in the field, either in person or via phone consultations, is helpful for processing the material the children and parents bring to the sessions. Regular supervision is also highly recommended because of the strong countertransference experiences counselors are likely to confront.
It is not uncommon to have two, three or even more mental health professionals involved with these high-conflict cases. When parents enter CBI, releases are required for all providers. This decreases the possibility of these providers aligning with one parent. In addition, strict confidentiality can result in polarization. As professionals, we need to be working with each other and respecting each other’s clinical choices. Regardless of whether the agency is small or large, in the absence of the ability to regularly confer with other professionals involved, the desire to “advocate” for one side against the other (alignment) will be strong. This will further entrench the family in the dysfunctional dynamics that brought them to counseling.
The separation of the conflicted child and target parent will increase the strong emotions of the parents. In turn, the child will feel and internalize these emotions. The more time that passes between the conflicted child seeing the target parent, the stronger the intensity of emotions against the target parent will become.
A strong “fear” or “anger” toward the target parent is often present. In such cases, the best avenue may be for the mental health professional to start with supervised visits or have the target parent and conflicted child meet in the professional’s office for a counseling visitation. Just the concept of supervised visits (implying something is not safe) or parent/child counseling (implying something is wrong with the parent and child) can be concerning, but we have found these sessions help tremendously in the beginning, especially if there has otherwise been no contact between the conflicted child and target parent.
Traditionally, we encourage counseling visitation sessions to start within a week or two of the family’s involvement with the therapist. Remember that as the mental health professional, you may experience a strong desire to align quickly against the target parent based on the information and emotion brought to you by the aligned and conflicted parties. These counseling visitation sessions initiate contact again and allow you to watch the interactions of the aligned parent and conflicted child.
During sessions, it is important to observe behaviors and/or verbal messages from the aligned parent implying that the child is not safe with the target parent. For instance, is the aligned parent missing sessions regularly, planning other activities during the time of the sessions or attempting to undermine the sessions and the relationship between the conflicted child and the target parent? Counselors should also observe whether the conflicted child attempts to harm the target parent in any way or engages in disrespectful or rude behavior toward the target parent. Clinicians should also note interactions between the parents during transitions with the children.
Traditionally, depending on the level of alignment, the mental health professional may request various services for the family. It is not unusual to recommend parenting classes for the parents because the separation will introduce additional stressors and changes in roles for the parents. Utilizing parenting courses helps parents develop new parenting styles and roles with their children. Individual therapy may be needed for one or both parents, in part because the separation may tax their ability to handle strong feelings in a nondestructive way. The children will learn to regulate their emotions when the parents are able to do so first. Thus, healthy, emotionally stable adults will help the child transition through the separation.
Conflicted parenting classes have also been found to be very helpful for the children. In addition to parenting education, these classes involve parents sitting in the same room and focusing on what they want for their child and how their child is adapting. There are many workbooks and professional books about co-parenting after separation that clinicians can utilize in these sessions.
In some situations, the parents will be too angry with each other to have an open discussion. In such instances, sessions will need to be scripted from one or more co-parenting resources, only allowing time for brief feedback and then returning to the script.
Conflicted parenting during a time of separation will affect the child involved, who will sometimes take sides with one parent against the other. This forced loyalty will harm the child’s future development and functioning. As the adults in the lives of the child, we have an obligation to do what is best for the child, even if it means putting some limitations on the child for his or her own sake. If handled properly, the mental health community can help these children and their families learn new skills to make healthy lifestyle choices and engage in positive social interactions with one another. We have found the CBI service to be extremely effective in helping parents deal with their own conflicts and helping children to work through conflict, create healthy relationships, develop healthier coping mechanisms and cultivate skills for emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility. Skills learned through conflicted parenting interventions allow for the existence of a larger supportive system of family as children deal with the stress of their parents’ separation.
At the same time, we have found this service to be difficult for the mental health professionals involved. They have to constantly toe the line in order not to align with either parent or the conflicted child and to help the child deal effectively with strong feelings and create healthy coping mechanisms and critical thinking skills.
Daniel W. Bishop, a member of the American Counseling Association and the Wisconsin Counseling Association, is a professor for Concordia University Chicago in the Department of Counselor Education and an instructor for the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He also works in private practice in Wisconsin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephanie Coates, also a member of the American Counseling Association and the Wisconsin Counseling Association, is completing licensure. She recently earned her master’s degree in community mental health counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.