Counseling individuals and families experiencing divorce is difficult work, often fraught with conflict that is challenging to contain. A great amount of anxiety, fear, anger and sadness may be present for all of the people involved, including one or both of the spouses and the children. Each individual may feel differently than the other family members and cycle intensely through different emotions at different times. This is challenging not only for those going through the process but also for counselors who work to support their clients through the loss of separation and divorce.
Historically, there has been a divide between the legal and mental health sides of divorce — with the exception of those working in the family court system. Most mental health therapists strive to stay as far away from the legal fracas as possible, attempting instead to remain neutral supports to their clients’ emotional process.
However, collaborative divorce, founded in 1990 by attorney Stewart Webb, integrates the family’s mental health and the legal aspects of divorce. The divorce coach and the divorce child specialist are two of the most common mental health professionals involved with the separating/divorcing couple as part of the collaborative divorce team. This article explains the role and rationale for the two specialties generated from the collaborative divorce movement.
In learning about collaborative divorce, counselors seeking effective ways to work with couples through divorce may find a new specialty. Others may discover helpful client resources targeting the specific adjustments required in separation and divorce. This allows the counselor to remain focused on the client’s or couple’s healing and recovery in the larger context of the psychotherapeutic process.
What is a divorce/co-parent coach?
A divorce/co-parent coach provides optimism and confidence about a smoother future during a time when life is seemingly falling apart, fraught with uncertainty and overwhelming challenges.
A divorce/co-parent coach is dedicated to working with couples through their separation/divorce process. These coaches confidently direct the individuals through the emotional terrain of ending their spousal/intimate partner relationship, while guiding them into a co-parenting relationship.
The coach works to “uncouple” the spousal relationship and strengthen the parenting functions of the couple so they can become effective co-parents across two homes. The co-parent coach may assist the parents in developing their parenting plan/residential schedule, which provides structure and boundaries for the new co-parenting relationship. The co-parenting relationship is often compared to a business relationship, with functions such as “co-parent executive officers” and “co-parent financial officers.”
Coaches often continue to work with co-parents after the divorce to help them learn how to implement a parenting plan and develop constructive communication protocols. Coaches also help these couples to understand roles, boundaries and ways of relating that will support their children in feeling safe and free of stress around their parents during transitions, at special occasions and in public. Co-parent coaches are problem-solvers who present strategies that make stabilizing two-home families easier for parents and kids alike. For parents, having a neutral divorce coach can ensure stability, helping them to address conflict and navigate difficult decisions productively. Divorce coaches can smooth out the wrinkles as parents continue to settle into their new post-divorce relationship. And for kids, this helps to ensure that their parents remain just plain parents.
Finding a good divorce/co-parent coach can change the trajectory of the divorce and, ultimately, the children’s lives — from dealing with parents who are guessing and stressing and uncertain to co-parents who feel more capable and confident with guidelines and protocols that work. Children return to growing up, learning and feeling secure; parents recover and begin developing the next chapter of their individual lives while raising children across two homes.
What is a child specialist?
To put it simply, a child specialist helps parents use their parenting skills to protect their children’s well-being and sense of security both during the divorce and in the first few years after the divorce.
The child specialist gives children a “voice” during this difficult time. It provides children a chance to express what’s working and what’s hurting to someone who cares without putting these children in the middle of parental conflict. Having a trained professional talk with children avoids putting them in the position of feeling guilty about their experience and feelings, feeling like they have to take care of one parent over another, or feeling like they have too much power in a situation in which they simply need to be kids.
The child specialist talks with children about the typical experiences of divorce and family change. He or she often helps children find solutions to challenges, identify strengths that reflect their developmental stage and support a positive view of a future once the change settles and a new sense of family takes hold.
A child specialist may be very different from other child “advocates” in the divorce process. Consider the following
- Child therapist: Although often child therapists or counselors by training, a child specialist is not the same as a child therapist. A child specialist’s goal is to help parents (not professionals) develop the knowledge and skills to be their children’s natural supports. The child specialist reassures the parents and provides them hope, clarity and guidance on how best to emotionally support their children. The child specialist does not have a long-term, ongoing psychotherapeutic relationship with the children, or the type of “confidentiality” typical of counseling. The children know that the child specialist will be talking with and helping their parents.
- Parent evaluator: Child specialists also help by assessing parents’ and children’s strengths and answering child-related questions and concerns, but they are not parent evaluators. Child specialists do not make decisions for or about parents as an “expert” and do not share information about the family in ways that can increase conflict, such as in court. The child specialist works for the family as a whole, not for one parent or the other.
- Guardian ad litem: Child specialists use their skills to help children speak for themselves about what they are experiencing and to seek their best interests, but they are not guardian ad litems. Although child specialists care deeply about the child’s perspective, they also know that the needs and interests of all family members (kids and parents) are important for the family’s long-term well-being.
Child specialists can have a significant impact on parents accurately understanding their children’s needs through the transition of separation and divorce. They work to focus the parents’ energy on what they can do to help their children thrive instead of becoming overwhelmed with anxiety. Child specialists can coach parents to develop awareness and skills to effectively support their kids. As a neutral professional, the child specialist can help guide parents in making reasonable decisions rather than getting caught up in unproductive conflict. Ultimately, a child specialist’s goals are the same as the parents’ goals. Supporting children in grief, encouraging them to heal and helping them return to their childhood — to just be kids.
The divorce/co-parenting coach and child specialist as a team
As a team, the divorce/co-parent coach works with the adults of the family, while the child specialist focuses on the children (like a coach for the kids). This division of labor preserves the important role of the divorce/co-parent coach as neutral (not on one parent’s side or the other) if difficult issues emerge about or with the children.
During the divorce process, parents often wonder if their children are going to be OK. They worry about what’s actually going on when their children are in residence with the other parent. They may actually project their own feelings of hurt, upset, disappointment and betrayal onto their children and come to believe that the children are uncomfortable with the other parent or aren’t being well cared for. These can be normal anxieties in the heat of divorce and family change. By engaging a child specialist, parents can learn how their children are actually perceiving the changes without putting their children in the middle.
After meeting with the children, talking with them about what’s working and what’s hurting, and teaching kids about the “normal aspects” of living through a family change, the child specialist brings the information back to the parents. Again, to avoid appearing to favor one parent’s point of view over the other, the child specialist maintains his or her neutrality by simply bringing the “voice of the children” into a coach session.
The child specialist provides insights about the kids, explains developmental information, clarifies what the children are actually thinking and feeling about the family change, and provides suggestions for ways to further support the children on the basis of what the children have shared. This valuable information generally inspires parents to make adjustments, clear up misconceptions, provide experiences and solve problems together to support their children more effectively throughout the separation and divorce process.
The divorce/co-parent coach listens to the child specialist along with the parents, provides “memory keeping” (remembering what the child specialist actually said) and remains neutral. The coach facilitates the conversation between the child specialist and the parents, asks clarifying questions and helps parents assimilate the information in a constructive manner. The parents and professional team work together to determine how these new insights might help inform co-parent practices, the residential schedule or other aspects of the parenting plan.
Every divorce/co-parent coach and child specialist has his or her own unique approach. The value of the coach and child specialist is that they hold to the principles of family-centered/child-centered decision-making for parents. As neutral professionals for the family, they know that parents — not outside “experts” or legal professionals — are best suited to make family decisions during divorce when at all possible.
To learn more about divorce/co-parent coaches and child specialists or their services, visit collaborativepractice.com.
About the authors
Kristin Little and Karen Bonnell are the co-authors of The Co-Parents’ Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted, Resilient and Resourceful Kids in a Two-Home Family From Little Ones to Young Adults.
Little is a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in the Seattle area. She has provided therapy for children at risk and their families within her community for the past 17 years. She is a board member of Collaborative Professionals of Washington, a growing organization that is dedicated to reducing the harmful conflict of divorce for couples and families. Contact her at kristinlittlecounseling.com.
Bonnell is a board-certified clinical nurse specialist with more than 30 years of experience working with individuals, couples and parents. Her private practice is dedicated to working with couples across the spectrum from premarital preparation to co-parenting in two-home families to remarriage. She has served on the board of King County Collaborative Law and was a founding member of the Collaborative Professionals of Washington. She is a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals and Academy of Professional Family Mediators. Contact her at coachmediateconsult.com.