Tag Archives: divorce

Parenting in the 21st century

By Laurie Meyers February 22, 2018

Remember when receipt of a coffee mug emblazoned with “Best Mom Ever” or a T-shirt proclaiming “Best Dad Ever” was enough to validate someone’s skills and aptitude as a parent? In the 21st century, it seems that the ante has been raised. In the eyes of society, parents barely qualify as competent — much less “perfect” — unless they can check off all of the following qualifications:

  • Not only attend to, but anticipate, their child’s every need
  • Orchestrate their child’s academic success
  • Provide their child with all the best experiences and most useful activities
  • Make home an oasis of peace and harmony for the family (while simultaneously prospering in their own careers)

Attendance to one’s children at all times is mandatory. No exceptions will be made for parents working two jobs just to get by, single parents or parents of children with special needs. No foolproof instruction manual will be provided.

These extreme expectations, paired with the rapidly accelerating pace of modern life, present significant obstacles and pressures for parents who genuinely want to make their children feel cared for without driving themselves crazy. Many counselors are routinely helping clients respond to these and other challenges of modern-day parenting.

Parenting, problems and pride

“Always on” parenting requires a lot of problem-solving, which leaves parents focused on all the things that are going wrong, says American Counseling Association member Laura Meyer, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Bedford, New Hampshire, who specializes in parenting issues and women’s concerns. In particular, working parents often have a difficult time attending every school function that is offered because they typically take place during the workday. This can feel like a failure, particularly for mothers, says Meyer, who is currently researching women’s parenting experiences.

As a kind of antidote, Meyer encourages clients to look for instances when they did something that made them proud of their parenting: “Maybe I wasn’t able to be there for this one particular event, but I made the costume that my kid wore in the play.”

It’s easy for parents to become trapped in the problems that they face, so Meyer encourages a solution-focused approach. For example, she has a client who is struggling with parenting a son who has intermittent explosive disorder. “She was at her wit’s end,” Meyer says. “He was kicking her [and] she was dragging him out of public venues.”

Meyer asked the woman to tell her what went well that week. At first, the client couldn’t think of anything. Then she remembered putting up a Christmas tree with her son. They had enjoyed decorating it together, and the mother took a photo. Meyer asked the client what might happen if every time that she and her son had a good moment together, she took a photo and included it in a chatbook — a social media app that allows users to generate photo books from uploaded pictures. Then they could sit down and look at the photos together each week.

The client burst into tears, saying it would make a huge difference to look at and remember some of the little victories rather than always thinking exclusively about the failures. Meyer suggested that the client could also use the photos to talk with her son about why that particular experience or day had been so good and then ask him how he had been able to remain calm.

Meyer encourages clients to use their counseling sessions as a time to stop and reflect on the quality of their relationship with their child rather than continually reacting to crises. Parents are often susceptible to getting caught up in the everyday duties of being a parent and missing out on the joy, love and upside of parenting, she says.

Helping prevent sexual abuse

Over the course of seven days in January, 156 young women and teenagers gathered in a courtroom in Michigan to recount how Lawrence Nassar, former physician for the USA Gymnastics team and Michigan State University, sexually violated them. Their stories detailed the widespread damage an unchecked predator with access to children and teenagers can wreak. Some of those who came to speak were accompanied by their parents, who were left to ask — in the words of one mother who testified — “How could I have missed the red flags?”

Most parents don’t have much accurate information about sexual predators, says ACA member Jennifer Foster, an assistant professor of counselor education and counseling psychology at Western Michigan University. Her research focuses on child sexual abuse.

In the past, most sexual abuse prevention efforts were aimed at children in the school system, she says. “This helped to create awareness, but the efforts had a major flaw in that they put the burden of stopping abuse on kids,” Foster observes.

As a former licensed mental health counselor and school counselor in Florida, Foster worked with many children who had been abused. “They would say to me, ‘I did say stop. I did say no,’” she recalls. Unfortunately, it is easy for children to be outmaneuvered and overpowered by adults and older children, so prevention efforts should focus on parents and other adults, Foster asserts.

Foster now helps educate parents about sexual predators. “I want parents to know all the scary info,” she says. This includes working to break down conventional myths. When asked to think about the profile of a “typical” predator, most people picture an adult male with a criminal record who is a stranger, or at least not someone the family knows well. Foster tells parents to picture instead the people they might invite to Thanksgiving dinner, because 90 to 96 percent of sexual predators are either family members or someone who is close to the family (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network puts this number at 93 percent). According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, 36 percent are other children.

Parents don’t typically picture a female offender either, and although the reported incidence of sexual abuse by women is low, experts think that the actual rate is higher, Foster says. Unfortunately, parents are much more likely to hand over the care of their children to a woman — in a day care setting, for instance — without really knowing the person’s background, she continues.

Research also indicates a high rate of sibling-on-sibling sexual abuse, often with the use of force, Foster says. Many parents like to assume that this is something that happens only in families with lower socioeconomic status, but the truth is that it can take place in any family. Foster adds that research indicates that if child or juvenile offenders get treatment, they are likely to recover and not go on to commit the same offense again.

Foster teaches parents about some of the behavioral red flags of possible sexual predators, including spending more time with children than with peers, lacking adult friends, having numerous child-friendly hobbies and making inappropriate sexual comments about children. Foster reported a local teacher who regularly made sexually suggestive comments to his female students, such as, “If you were my daughter, I wouldn’t let you out the door in those pants because I know what I would be thinking.”

“That is such a great example of covert abuse, which was allegedly ignored by school staff when girls repeatedly complained about the teacher. That was one of multiple comments he made. They were told, ‘You’re taking it the wrong way. You misheard. You don’t know how to take a compliment.’ Then, when he had an opportunity and a student in isolation, the abuse moved to overt, with him putting his hand up her shirt.”

That student happened to be a member of a youth group Foster helps lead at her church. She believes the girl felt encouraged to disclose to her because of a pen that Foster often uses that says, “Rape. Talk about it.” Another girl in the group asked why Foster had that pen, and that gave Foster an opening to talk about the work she has done with sexual trauma survivors. After the group, the girl who had been violated told Foster about her experience. Foster contacted the school, which she says took no official action, instead simply allowing the teacher to resign.

Parents should also be wary of adults who are always putting their hands on kids or giving kids hugs, Foster says. These behaviors will often take place in front of other people because predators are testing to see if anyone notices and is alarmed by their actions. Predators also try to spend time alone with children and may give them gifts. Foster says that giving gifts can be an entirely benevolent act, but she also warns that it can be a part of the grooming process. Foster’s family has established a rule that her children won’t take gifts from anyone without first asking Foster or their father.

Foster also teaches her children that no secrets should be kept in their family (although she does distinguish between secrets and surprises). Part of the reasoning for this practice is that sexual predators often try to get children to keep small secrets. For example, “Don’t tell your mom I gave you ice cream before dinner. She’ll be mad at me!” Small secrets are a test of sorts, Foster explains. The predator is trying to gauge what a child will and will not tell his or her parents.

Predators are opportunistic — always looking for ways to be “helpful,” Foster says. They often try to come to the rescue, particularly with families in vulnerable situations, such as a family with a chronically ill child, a family that is new to town or a family headed by a single parent, she says. Becoming the family savior is part of the end goal so that they can get time alone with the children, Foster explains.

Although Foster believes that the burden of spotting and stopping child sexual abuse must be placed on adults, she says that it is still important for children to know that it is not OK for someone to touch them inappropriately. Foster likes to teach parents the language that Feather Berkower, a child sexual abuse prevention expert, uses about “body safety.” The concept is simple enough that even little children can learn it.

Body safety means that no one can look at, touch or take pictures of the child’s private parts, and children should not look at or touch another person’s body parts, Foster explains. She believes that children who aren’t taught about body safety are more vulnerable because they don’t have the language to talk about something that has made them feel uncomfortable, including actual abuse. Children should also learn the anatomically correct names for body parts, Foster says.

Foster’s son knows that everyone has to follow body safety rules. If he goes to a friend’s house, Foster also makes sure that the friend’s parents are aware that Foster’s family follows body safety rules. In addition, because of the prevalence of child-on-child sexual abuse, Foster does not allow closed doors when friends come over to play at her family’s house. She also intermittently checks in with her son about his interactions with the adults in his life by asking if he had fun with the person, what they did together and whether the person followed the body safety rules.

Most parents are also in the dark about how to keep their children safe online, Foster says, but they need to be aware that sexual predators often use online means to target children. Perpetrators often develop social media accounts and profiles, posing as someone who is the same age as the child or adolescent they are targeting and then revealing their true age later. After earning the young person’s trust, the predator may attempt to entice the child or adolescent to meet in person and move their encounters offline.

Foster recommends that families confine technology use to open spaces such as the TV room or kitchen. Parents can make use of tracking tools, but they should also have an open dialogue with their children about their online activity, Foster says. She also advises that parents find out what kind of technology rules other parents have before allowing children to go to their friends’ houses.

As a whole, Foster says, a higher level of vigilance against sexual abuse is required. She notes that most parents are good about discussing safety with their children when it comes to looking both ways before crossing the street, using a helmet when riding a bike or always wearing a seatbelt in the car. But more children are sexually abused each year than are hit by cars, and relatively few families take active steps to prevent that from happening.

“When it comes to child sexual abuse, adults need to take on the responsibility to create safe homes and communities,” Foster says. “Counselors [can] give them the tools they need.”

No longer partners but still parents

“Divorce changes kids’ lives [and] usually not in good ways,” says Kristin Little, a licensed mental health counselor whose Seattle-area practice includes a focus on counseling families that are navigating divorce or separation. “However, kids can manage even difficult divorce changes if well-supported and protected from the most harmful effects of conflict [such as] loss of confidence in their parents’ ability to lead, loss of stability in home/school life and loss of relationship with either or both parents.”

Little says the most essential thing that mental health professionals can do when counseling parents who are separated, divorced or in the process of divorcing is to introduce the idea of the separation of “adult mind” and “parent mind.”

“Parents can be experiencing a high level of anger or sadness while their marriage is ending. This is normal and expected and may be important for them to explore individually,” she says. “However, they continue to be parents and need to separate their own adult experience and reactions from their parenting roles. Giving parents the permission to feel, yet reminding them that they have the responsibility to attend to parenting needs, make important decisions, [and] see and respond to their children’s needs and feelings as separate from their own, is vitally important.”

ACA member Kimberly Mason, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Madisonville, Louisiana, who specializes in family and relationship issues, says that many parents have difficulty managing their anger, guilt and shame, and setting aside their conflict while parenting. To better shield their children from strife, she gives the following recommendations to parents:

1) Have ground rules for communication. Parents should not berate each other or argue in front of their children. If necessary, they should go to a private area to work out their conflict.

2) Each parent should seek individual counseling to work through his or her own issues. This can help limit the level of animosity and frequency of arguments that may occur in the home.

3) Model mutual respect for each other in front of the children. Each partner should also talk to family members and friends and ask them to refrain from saying negative things about the other partner in front of the children.

Parents who are facing divorce or separation are often terrified, which can override their ability to collaborate and make decisions, Little says. They may seek safety by sticking to past patterns of interacting and relying on assumptions about roles or capabilities that they held during the marriage or relationship, she explains. They often have difficulty envisioning change.

“This can result in one parent insisting that they are more experienced than the other and thus deserving of more time, which inevitably triggers fear and anger in the other parent and results in what we often see as a tug of war that rarely serves the kids’ or parents’ needs,” Little says.

Counselors can be a neutral “referee” of sorts for parents, steering the conversation away from who is wrong or right and instead toward developing a working co-parenting relationship that focuses on the future, she says.

ACA member Monika Logan, an LPC in Frisco, Texas, has a practice that focuses on divorce and parenting issues. She says that parents need to learn to form a more businesslike relationship by setting aside their emotions toward each other. Parents can begin to do this by “working on their own feelings related to the separation or divorce and developing a support network,” she says.

Little agrees with encouraging that approach. “[It] allows them to get the important job of parenting done,” she says. “It is essentially undoing the patterns, dynamics and practices of the marriage to allow for a renegotiation of how they will interact [and] the tasks they will agree to in the new co-parenting relationship.”

Each partner must agree to the new “business” guidelines or they won’t work, says Mason, who is also a core faculty member at Walden University. They must commit to putting their children’s needs above their own and making joint decisions. Compromise and consistency are also essential. The parents must be willing to back each other up when making decisions so that the children will still view them as a team, she emphasizes.

“Contrary to what some people describe, healthy co-parenting can be anywhere along the spectrum from parallel parenting — having little contact and overlap between homes and parents — to how co-parenting is usually thought of — frequent collaboration and interaction,” Little says.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to co-parenting, she says. A counselor’s job is to help parents craft a plan that works for each partner, minimizes conflict and, most important, meets the needs of their children.

Coming to terms with coming out

As the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning or queer) community has gained greater acceptance during the past 10 to 20 years, it has become more common for young people to come out to their parents, says ACA member Misty Ginicola, an LPC in West Haven, Connecticut, whose practice specialties include LGBTQ issues. She adds that those who come out are also often taking that step at younger ages than in the past — for instance, as middle schoolers rather than as teenagers.

How parents react to that decision is incredibly important to the mental health of the child. Ginicola, the lead editor of the ACA-published book Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People, has witnessed parent reactions in her practice that ran the gamut from accepting yet concerned to completely opposed and voicing a desire to “fix” their child. She tells parents looking to “cure” a child that counselors cannot, either from an ethical or a practical standpoint, change someone’s sexual/affectional orientation. However, Ginicola does try to address the concerns of all parents who come to her for help, whether they are “affirming” parents (who are supportive of their child’s orientation) or “disaffirming” (those who reject LGBTQ status).

Even parents who are supportive of the LGBTQ community may have problems adjusting to their own child coming out, she says. They may ask if the child is “sure” or, if a child comes out as gay or lesbian and then subsequently shows interest in someone who is other gendered, they may say, “Oh, so you’re really not [gay or lesbian],” Ginicola reports. These kinds of reactions often spring from parents’ fears that their child will be bullied or belittled or face other hurtful consequences, she says.

However, Ginicola explains to parents that when they ask those kinds of questions or make those kinds of statements, what their children actually hear is that something is wrong with them. Children are very vulnerable when coming out. In fact, the risk of suicide is highest during the coming-out process, but research shows that having supportive parents reduces this risk by half. So, it is crucial for parents to strive to always communicate support and to be willing to admit and apologize when they have said the wrong thing, Ginicola emphasizes.

Ginicola also teaches parents that although they cannot keep their children from being bullied, they can help them cope by building and reinforcing their self-esteem, teaching them good social and emotional skills, and ensuring that they have allies such as friends, teachers and school counselors in place.

One of the ways parents can help build their children’s self-esteem is by helping them find places where they will be accepted through whatever interests and activities they enjoy, Ginicola says. She cautions, however, that parents must take it upon themselves to ensure that these places are safe and not an environment in which their child will be rejected or targeted.

Parents should also talk to their child’s school to confirm that it has sound anti-bullying policies in place, Ginicola says. Most important, parents must make sure their children understand that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are not the problem, she emphasizes.

Unfortunately, the reality is that although acceptance for those who identify as LGBTQ has grown tremendously, they are still at increased risk for experiencing violence, meaning that parents need to talk to children who have come out about safety, Ginicola says. Specifically, children should be careful about who their friends are and make sure that they attend parties and other social events with people who are affirming, she says. Parents should also caution children who are not fully out to be very careful about whom they tell, not because there is anything wrong about telling but because sometimes it can be unsafe, Ginicola says.

Open communication is also essential. Children need to know and trust that they can tell their parents anything, Ginicola says. It is particularly critical that children understand the necessity of informing their parents about any instances of bullying, violence or other actions that threaten a child’s safety, she says.

Counselors must also prepare parents for the rejection that they will experience, Ginicola points out. For example, it is possible that family members might say hurtful things about a child who has come out and question how the parents are raising the child, she says. Community members may also weigh in with their own judgments, which Ginicola has experienced personally, including when a neighbor called child protective services because Ginicola lets her nongender-conforming son wear pink shoes to school. Nothing came of the neighbor’s call, but “it’s scary to realize that while I am getting the rejection for him now, someday he will receive that,” she says.

In some cases, parents may lose a whole community in which they previously felt secure and safe, Ginicola says. For example, in the African-American community, the church often serves as the main safe space for its congregants, but many churches are not affirming of LGBTQ individuals. By choosing to support their children who identify as LGBTQ, the parents may lose an essential source of support.

In cases such as these, Ginicola helps her clients process their grief and encourages them to seek alternative sources of support, such as other parents who have gone through similar experiences. She is also able to recommend online and local groups to which parents can turn. Ginicola also provides validation for the parents, emphasizing that it is the culture that is the problem, not the parents themselves. Another part of the service that counselors can provide these clients is to make sure they are practicing good self-care, she adds.

Ginicola also sees parents who are totally unsupportive of their child’s LGBTQ status. She acknowledges walking a fine line with these clients. Although she doesn’t want to support their beliefs, she tries to identify a way to reach them so that they don’t instead go find a therapist who is willing to attempt to “change” their child.

“[It requires] the same principles that underlie work with any parent that is potentially destructive to a child,” Ginicola says. “[It’s] a delicate balance of keeping them feeling validated without promoting harming their child.”

She starts by probing for what is at the root of the parents’ nonaffirming stance. “Let’s say it’s religious beliefs. You [as the counselor] can’t start quoting Bible verses,” Ginicola says. “That’s not our place, and they’re not going to listen to us anyway because we’re not within their religious group.”

Ginicola validates parents by saying she can see that it might be difficult to feel caught between two conflicting forces — the instinct to love and support their child versus their belief in a religious tradition that rejects their child. Rather than attempting to challenge their religious beliefs, she looks for inconsistencies and discrepancies that she can point out.

“I might say, ‘I’m hearing you say that in your faith you are supposed to love and support your child but also hearing that this [coming out] is something you can’t support. How do you feel about that conflict?’”

Ginicola tries to get these clients to a point at which they are willing to join local or online support groups and talk to other parents who have gone through the same experience. She reasons that these parents will be the best source of support and advice on coping with the conflict of belonging to a faith tradition that does not affirm LGBTQ identity and culture, yet wanting to support a child who is LGBTQ.

Sometimes parents are unwilling to let go of whatever beliefs are informing their anti-LGBTQ stance. In these situations, Ginicola lets them know that they are choosing a dangerous path. When families utterly reject children who come out as LGBTQ, the risk of suicide is exponentially increased.

“At some point,” Ginicola observes, “they have to ask themselves, do they want a gay son or a dead son?”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm by Joshua M. Gold
  • Casebook for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons and Their Families edited by Sari H. Dworkin and Mark Pope
  • Youth at Risk, sixth edition, edited by David Capuzzi and Douglas R. Gross

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Divorce and Children” by Elizabeth A. Mellin and Lindsey M. Nichols
  • “Parenting Education” by Carl J. Sheperis and Belinda Lopez

ACA divisions

  • Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling (acachild.org)
  • International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (iamfconline.org)

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Bringing the family counseling perspective into schools

By S. Kent Butler, Tony D. Crespi and Mackenzie McNamara May 8, 2017

Children in schools today come from increasingly diverse and complex families. As illustration, more than 1 million families are impacted annually by divorce. In fact, approximately 13.7 million single parents are raising 21.8 million children, and 1 in 3 Americans are stepparents, stepchildren, stepsiblings or part of a stepfamily. Furthermore, according to a 2009 article published in the journal Family Relations, it is estimated that only 31 percent of fathers who no longer live with their children maintain weekly contact with those children. It is easy to conclude that the issue of divorce alone has a profound impact on many millions of children in the U.S.

Now imagine that a young student and her mother walk into the professional school counselor’s office on a Monday morning. Mom explains that she and her husband are pursuing a divorce — he recently told her that he’s been having an affair and has decided to move in with his girlfriend. The daughter acknowledges feelings of depression and admits to having angry outbursts at home. Mom says she is concerned because her daughter’s grades have been dropping.

Considering the large number of children and adolescents coping with parental divorce, it’s not surprising that this fragmented family came to the school counselor’s office. In fact, it’s a good thing. Both daughter and mother need someone to talk to, and schools are a natural access point for services. However, many professional school counselors are not trained in family dynamics and are not familiar with key tenets that impact family counseling, so they may not know how to proceed.

A sample case

Susie is 15. A high school freshman, she knows only that her father left the house two months ago to move in with his girlfriend. Susie’s parents had been together for 16 years, getting married shortly after college.

Susie’s father hasn’t called since leaving. Susie is unaware that her father told her mother that although he loves Susie and her younger sister, who is in seventh grade, he hasn’t missed seeing them in the least. Mom decided not to share this comment with the children, but she does confide this secret to you, the professional school counselor.

Sitting in your office, Susie suddenly looks up and exclaims that she is scared she will have to move and change schools. She also says that she’s having a really tough time paying attention in class and explains that her grades are slipping. “I hate my dad for doing this!” she yells.

Suddenly, Susie starts shaking and breaks down in tears. After a few minutes, Susie tells you that she is spending a lot of time with her boyfriend, partly to stay out of her house. She acknowledges feeling depressed. After pausing for a moment, she looks at her mom and states, “I really hate Dad. His girlfriend is so young. She’s in her 20s. She’s not much older than me!”

Academically, Susie has been an A and B student, but her grades have fallen since her father left. Her mother acknowledges that things are tough at home and reveals that she didn’t learn about her husband’s affair until the day he moved out. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she tells you. “I know we’re getting a divorce, but beyond that I just don’t know.”

Your school doesn’t have a social worker. However, you have a colleague who has been studying family counseling, so you knock on her door to ask for a consultation. After sitting down, you share a few thoughts.

You note that, fundamentally, Susie needs someone to talk to about these issues. Acknowledging that you are speculating, you openly wonder what type of impact the obviously poor communication in Susie’s family is having on her. After all, her father has not called in two months, her mother was completely unaware of the affair and her mother is keeping the father’s confession of not missing his kids a secret. These facets alone highlight poor family communication. In addition, Susie is scared that she might have to move and change schools. Clearly the issues are widespread.

Risk points

Here are some risk points to consider as you work with Susie:

  • Parenting after a divorce differs significantly from parenting prior to
    a divorce.
  • Single-parent families in the United States are increasing.
  • Children of divorce have more mental health problems in comparison with their peers.
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among U.S. youth.
  • Brain regions responsible for decision-making are not fully developed in youth.
  • Changes in family structure can have an affect on school grades.
  • Anxiety, depression and behavior problems are elevated after divorce.
  • Children of divorce often feel a sense of instability.

An understanding of these risk points is essential for moving forward with children and families because the risk points can provide direction for the work that needs to be done. For example, knowing that mental health symptoms are elevated following divorce and impulsive decision-making is greater among youth, you should assess Susie’s level of safety. In this case, Susie also makes many “red flag” statements.

These are things that counselors know how to address but might not always consider without an awareness of the data. In addition, parents can become defensive, or they might blame themselves for their children’s difficulties. For this reason, it is imperative to educate parents on these risk points. It is also important to realize that family issues may require clinical supervision.

Supervision around work with families 

Susie is not alone. As your colleague notes, Susie is one of many children and adolescents who are coping with family stressors. With the prevalence of so many family issues, a growing number of states have enabled licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) to work in the schools. Connecticut, New Mexico, Maine, Texas and Illinois have passed specific laws to allow LMFTs to work in schools, whereas Massachusetts allows LMFTs to work under a general mental health designation.

Schools clearly represent an important access point for mental health professionals. But with only six states utilizing LMFTs in schools, it is extremely important for professional school counselors and their supervisors to know how to manage these situations with families.

As you ponder your next meeting with Susie, you need information. Direct supervisors are often part of the structure of many agencies, but professional school counselors might need to seek support from a colleague with training in family counseling. Such supervision might come from a guidance director, a school psychologist, a consulting psychologist, a marriage and family counselor, or a local family agency.

Two popular family therapy models that might help Susie are presented below.

Symbolic-experiential family therapy 

This model, derived from the work of Carl Whitaker, addresses both individual and relational patterns. It is focused on both personal growth and family relations.

Fundamentally, the therapist helps dislodge rigid patterns and stimulates flexibility using a family’s natural pull toward growth. Focusing on the present, the therapist helps people recognize their real feelings, express those feelings and move forward, individually and as a family. Key points follow.

  • The “battle for structure” involves clients (a family) “sizing up” a therapist. There is no “identified patient”; rather, the family is the therapy unit. In this model, the therapist must win the battle and control therapy. For instance, if the therapist invites the entire family and one member does not show up to the session, the therapist may refuse to meet until everyone attends. In the case with Susie, you might note that you, Susie, her mother and Susie’s sister must all attend.
  • The family must win the “battle for initiative”; this involves their decision to take charge of their lives and decisions. Is Susie committed to resolving her feelings? Will she commit to six counseling sessions? Is she willing to confront her father about calling his children? Is she motivated to initiate change?

Therapy progresses through stages:

1) Engagement: This is the “meet and greet” phase. You have already started this stage with Susie and her mom.

2) Middle phase: Families are encouraged to change through confrontations, encouragement and interventions. Can Susie’s family meet to start this process?

3) Late phase: Increased flexibility is a focus for the family. Can Susie’s family talk through how the divorce will change their life?

4) Separation: As the therapist separates, the family takes responsibility.

Symbolic-experiential family therapy often advocates the use of co-therapy, making it a great model to use with a more “senior” therapist. In this fashion, supervision can be active and ongoing as you acquire firsthand skills in family counseling.

Structural family therapy

The structural approach, typically associated with Salvador Minuchin, views problems as being rooted in family interactions. Fundamentally, if we can help change the family’s organization (structure), its members typically find that they feel better and their symptoms are often relieved. Key points follow.

  • Enmeshment or disengagement: Family members may range from those who are overly connected to those who are disengaged. Enmeshment tends to prevent growing maturity, whereas disengagement may lead a child to feel abandoned. Most families are not one or the other but have subsystems that reflect their tendencies. For example, a disengaged father who is overly involved at work may neglect the family. In response, the mother may compensate by becoming overly involved. Is Dad really connected? What is the structure
  • Boundaries: Are parental boundaries rigid or flexible? Are grandparents a resource? Can a child visit Dad at work, or does the family maintain a rigid rule against it? Can Susie ask Dad questions? What are the boundaries? What is spoken? What is unspoken?
  • Alignments: Who joins together? Are children aligned against the parents? Did a parent resent and refuse to attend a child’s sporting activities? Did a parent require everyone to attend? What are the alignments?
  • Triangulation: The permutations of triangulation in families can be abundant. A child and parent may triangulate against another parent. A parent having an affair can create a triangle with the other spouse. Will Susie triangulate with Mom against Dad? What triangles exit?

The structural model also features several stages:

1) Joining and accommodating

2) Assessing family interactions

3) Monitoring dysfunction

4) Restructuring patterns

Summary and considerations

When a student walks into a professional school counselor’s office, we are presented with a rare opportunity. When a student and parent walk in together, we are handed an even rarer opportunity.

Family counseling offers unique and engaging ways of reframing problems. Rather than blaming an individual for a particular problem, family counselors look at the family system. Perhaps a child’s acting-out behaviors allow parents to avoid looking at their relational problems. Perhaps a child’s failing grades reflect more on family anxiety and stress than on individual issues. Fundamentally, family counseling takes a larger, more systemic perspective of presenting issues.

Professional school counselors possess wonderful skill sets. They understand rapport building. They understand relational dynamics. They understand problem assessment and the utility of interventions. The connection between families and school adjustment is undeniable. At the same time, school counselors will likely find continuing education and supervision indispensable in helping families.

In our experience, students and families can often benefit from a family counseling perspective. With so many students in the schools coping with changing family structures, it is vital that we expand our skill sets. Fortunately, there are multiple platforms through which we can provide help. Some of these options include:

  • Individual counseling from a family perspective
  • Co-therapy with single families
  • School-based divorce groups with multiple children
  • Single-parent support groups

This article is intended to stimulate thinking and provide a preliminary glimpse into two prominent family counseling theories. Our advice? Be available. Be sensitive. Consider finding a supervisor who is capable of expanding your knowledge and skills in this invaluable area. Truly, children, families and the community stand only to benefit.

 

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S. Kent Butler is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. He is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and national certified school counselor. He is particularly interested in mentoring, supervision and multicultural issues in counseling. Contact him at skbutler@ucf.edu.

Tony D. Crespi is a professor at the University of Hartford. He is a certified school counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, and licensed psychologist. He is particularly interested in family counseling and legal issues that affect supervision.

Mackenzie McNamara is a doctoral student in the counseling psychology program at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She most recently worked for New London Public Schools in Connecticut.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Parent-child relationship problems: Treatment tools for rectification counseling

By Monika Logan December 8, 2015

As counselors, we come in contact with clients who are angry or heartbroken and oftentimes feel defeated. This sense of pain and loss is frequently realized in the forensic setting in which I work with parents who are desperate to rebuild a parent-child relationship that is severely damaged or estranged. I also work with children who assert that they never want to see or speak with one of their parents again.

SadKidThese are not parents who have abused or neglected their children. They are parents who previously had what would be characterized as a good relationship with their children — until the time of a separation or divorce. I have worked with families in which the conflict has continued for longer than 10 years prior to therapy.

It should be noted that many people in the helping professions refer to this troubled parent-child relationship as “parental alienation.” Through the years, various nomenclatures have been applied in an attempt to give this pathological post-divorce phenomenon a name. But even as we settle on what to call it, we must help these children and the counselors who work with them.

Most counselors working with children or families have witnessed this dynamic to varying degrees. There are ample articles on child alienation, yet many counselors remain conflicted about how to effectively treat these troubled parent-child relationships.

I’ll provide a case example. “Sarah” contacted me and said she had been divorced for 15 years. She told me she had been happily remarried for five years, held a doctorate degree in mathematics and was employed as a full-time professor. But she indicated she had a damaged relationship with her 15-year-old daughter, “Julie.”

In chronicling her story in my office, Sarah vacillated between sobbing and seething with anger. She said that when Julie spent time with her biological father, “Michael,” that he undermined Sarah’s parenting boundaries, spoiled Julie and used every opportunity to denigrate Sarah. Sarah went on to say that she was worried because Julie was disregarding curfews and skipping classes, had been in trouble with the juvenile court system and had recently been caught smoking marijuana.

When I contacted Michael, he presented with a jovial disposition. He stated he was engaged to be married and was employed as a plumber. He initially appeared supportive of his daughter. Although he said he didn’t see any reason that Julie might need therapy, he indicated that he wasn’t opposed.

When Julie’s therapy sessions began, she insisted that she loathed her mother because Sarah was unreasonable. Julie stated that her mother grounded her for “trivial” reasons such as skipping school and smoking marijuana. When discussing her father’s approach to parenting, Julie described Michael as a superb parent because he did not stoop to “ruining” her life. In addition, Julie mentioned that her father was planning on buying her a car. She stated that her father would talk with her and not carry out “ridiculous, over-the-top consequences for trivial, normal teenage mishaps.”

 

Treatment tips

Step one: The first step is to ask yourself if you possess the skills and advanced training to work with families engaged in transition and ongoing conflict. If not, that is OK. This is a good time to seek referrals from colleagues who are comfortable with court-connected work.

Step two: When working with parents who are separated, divorced or are in the middle of a child-custody evaluation, counselors should request a copy of the court orders prior to starting treatment with their children. Counselors should be aware that some parents “therapist shop” and are actively looking for a counselor who will tell them what they want to hear, not necessarily what is helpful. Some potential clients are searching for a counselor to align with them and join in with them about how awful their ex-spouse is. Counselors should keep in mind that failure to contact the child’s other parent may introduce a host of issues (for example, board complaints), especially if the parent seeking treatment for the child does not have the right to do so per court order. Also make certain to obtain all necessary releases before conversing with any previous counselors who have worked with the family members.

Step three: Counselors working with parents who are irrationally rejected by their children need to be well-versed in the literature. Failing to recognize and treat alienated children and their parents prolongs emotional damage for the child and can harm the entire family system.

Step four: As a counselor, you must know who the client is. Are you working with the child, the child and the parent(s), or one/both of the parents? It is vital to understand how the client ended up in your office. Additionally, your role must be clear. Are you working as a court-appointed counselor or a court-involved counselor? Recognize that in cases of child alienation, other parties — such as other counselors, attorneys or parenting coordinators — are often involved.

Step five: Know your definitions, but do not diminish your clients by labeling them. When conversing with other professionals, it is acceptable to refer to the parent to whom the child aligns as the “favored” parent. The “rejected” parent (or “target” parent) is the parent whom the child rejects or refuses to spend time with. When working with the courts, and depending on their jurisdiction, counselors may want to use behavioral descriptions, not diagnostic labels.

Counselors should remember to focus on behaviors that can be described. Although it is acceptable to discuss the concept of triangulation, gatekeeping, pathological alignment or irrational alienation with your colleagues, it is not helpful to use these terms with clients.

Step six: Do not diagnose if you have not actually met the client or witnessed the parent-child interactions. For instance, if one parent seeks your services and reports that the other parent is alienating the child and is a narcissist and/or borderline, you cannot diagnose that other parent as borderline because you have not met with or witnessed that parent.

 

Therapeutic fallacies

Richard Warshak is a world-renowned expert on parental alienation. He has written countless peer-reviewed publications on custody disputes, divorce, alienated children and stepfamilies, and has developed educational materials. Warshak recently provided strategies that can guide counselors in working with this difficult parent-child dynamic. According to a study he published earlier this year (see http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2015-27699-001/), several fallacies can compromise the therapeutic process.

  • Children never unreasonably reject the parent with whom they spend the most time. The first fallacy counselors should recognize is that more time does not necessarily equal quality time. Using rapid clinical judgment, it is easy to conclude that a child identifies with the parent whom he or she sees the most. If counselors do not recognize this fallacy, they may determine that the parent must have done something that warranted poor treatment by the child. This line of thinking contributes to additional emotional distress. In turn, under this assumption, counselors can go on the lookout for flaws within the rejected parent to substantiate their beliefs. Counselors should be aware that when a child spends time with the nonresidential parent, that parent could be using that limited time to teach the child to disrespect and disobey the custodial parent. To offset this fallacy, counselors must stop thinking in unidimensional terms.
  • Children never unreasonably reject mothers. According to Warshak’s study, “Those who believe mothers cannot be the victims of their children’s irrational rejection are predisposed to believe that children who reject their mothers have good reason for doing so.” He advises that counselors should keep an open mind about both parents and consider that mothers may be rejected without good reason.
  • Each parent contributes equally to a child’s alienation. Counselors should not generalize that both parents are always equally at fault for a child’s alienation. Counselors would not place equal blame for intimate partner violence on the victim. Likewise, it is not helpful to equally blame both parents for a child’s unwarranted rejection when one parent may be instigating the child’s actions and attitudes.

One bias that comes into play is repetition bias. Those working in the field are permeated with the term “high conflict” and may deem that parental alienation is synonymous with that term. As described by Warshak, the term high conflict “implies joint responsibility for generating conflict.”

In my practice, I developed a nuanced view. There are times when both parents contribute to and could benefit from parenting education or family therapy. However, in the case of Sarah and Michael, Michael openly defied the court’s orders, ultimately refusing to let Sarah spend time with their daughter. He also denigrated Sarah in front of the child. I would not be practicing the concept of “non-maleficence” when working with Sarah if I were to suggest that she was at fault. Demanding more of Sarah and blaming her only adds insult to injury.

As Warshak points out, “When the rejected parent’s behavior is inaccurately assumed to be a major factor in the children’s alienation, therapy proceeds in unproductive directions.” At this point, counselors may wonder, “What am I to do?” A counselor should remain neutral and avoid making unwarranted assumptions.

  • Alienation is a child’s transient, short-lived response to the parents’ separation. This fallacy is damaging because child alienation may be deemed to be a normal byproduct of divorce that will resolve on its own. Prior to going into private practice, I co-led a support group for adults who had lost all contact with their children. These cases were not due to a background of abuse or neglect; instead, many involved a contentious divorce.

Unfortunately, some counselors espouse the notion that the child should decide when to see the rejected parent and suggest that over time, the child will come around. In some cases, the child may re-establish a relationship with the parent. However, not all children reconnect. And even if they do, parents cannot reclaim lost time.

Counselors understand that they should practice within the scope of their license. In many states, counselors are prohibited from making access or possession determinations. Counselors do not have the right to supersede a court order and tell an alienated child that he or she does not have to spend time with the rejected parent. Again, it is necessary to obtain a copy of the client’s current court orders prior to starting counseling.

Another practice tip is that counselors should encourage the parent who is the target of unwarranted rejection to remain in constant contact with his or her children. Counselors can also aid parents in knowing and understanding the stages of development and helping parents to formulate proper responses to a child’s verbal insults.

  • Rejecting a parent is a healthy short-term coping mechanism. Counselors can identify this fallacy by reflecting on common biases, many which are covered in counseling programs. Counselors must be cautious about the bias of wishful thinking because it provides a false hope to clients. As Warshak (2015) explains, “Counselors who believe that rejection of a parent is a healthy adaptation encourage parents to accept the children’s negativity until the children feel ready to discard it.” He goes on to say that “this is especially true when therapists assume that the alienation is destined to be short-lived.” Although we have specialized training as counselors, it is important to remember that we cannot predict future outcomes.

Another way to think about parental rejection is to consider whether the parents would ignore their child refusing to speak to one of the parents if the whole family still resided together. Understandably, most would find this unacceptable.

  • Alienated adolescents’ stated preferences should dominate decisions. This fallacy can be offset by using analytical thinking and a basic understanding of brain development. Many adolescents know more about adult matters than we would want them to know. Regardless, adolescents are not adults and should not make adult decisions. Adolescents are prone to peer pressure and are in the process of discovering their identity. Most adults cannot imagine asking if an adolescent would like to attend school. As Warshak writes, “Adolescents’ vulnerability to external influence is why parents are wise to worry about the company their teenagers keep.”

Counselors can help rejected parents to not personalize it when a teenager has a soccer game and prefers to forego parent-child time. Or when working with a favored parent who claims the child does not enjoy time with the target parent, counselors can point out that some adolescents do not enjoy their homework, but they are expected to do it anyway.

 

Treatment goals and tips

When working with the child:

  • Promote a healthy relationship with both parents.
  • Help the child to correct cognitive distortions.
  • Work with the child to maintain a balanced view of both parents.
  • Improve the child’s critical thinking skills.
  • Recognize when a child’s behavior is incongruent from one setting to the next.
  • Augment the child’s coping skills.

When working with the rejected parent:

  • Recognize that the parent may feel misunderstood.
  • Work with the parent not to counter-reject the child.
  • Be aware of avoidance and passivity; the parent may want to escape the poor treatment of the ex-spouse and the child by avoiding the problem altogether.

When working with the favored parent:

  • Recognize there may be a role reversal. The child may be meeting the emotional needs of the parent. Help the parent recognize his or her role as a parent and encourage the parent to engage in adult relationships to find emotional support.
  • Keep an eye open for enmeshment. What might initially appear as a healthy parent-child relationship could be extremely unhealthy. For instance, there may be a lack of community or family support.
  • Recognize that children generally benefit from the involvement of parents, absence abuse or neglect. Realize that some rejected parents may have personality disorders and continue to instigate court hearings or defy court orders.

 

The do’s and don’ts

• Do not recommend a change in custody if one parent is behaving badly. Custody reversal may be necessary in some cases, but it is not the role of the counselor to make that determination.

• Do not align with one parent over the other.

• Do cooperate with parenting coordinators and the courts.

• Do recognize that parents in litigation are likely to be working toward an adult-oriented outcome — namely to prevail in court.

• Do consider a variety of explanations when working with a child or teenager who irrationally rejects a parent.

• Do not discard information that is inconsistent with the counselor’s viewpoint.

 

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Monika Logan is a licensed professional counselor living in Dallas who specializes in troubled parent-child relationships and sexual behavior problems. In addition to maintaining a private practice and doing court-connected work, she recently developed a program to help youth in the criminal justice system maintain boundaries both offline and online and stay connected with their families. Contact her at mlogan@texaspcs.org.

 

Stuck in the middle

By Ann M. Ordway and Ruth O. Moore October 21, 2015

Licensed professional counselors are increasingly becoming involved in court proceedings relative to their work with families involved in high-conflict divorce, separation and custody litigation. Counseling professionals can serve in a variety of roles when working with families embroiled in divorce litigation. For example, a counselor might develop a therapeutic relationship with an individual family member, a couple or the entire family unit. These roles are typically kept distinctly separate. However, when working with high-conflict families, such roles can become easily blurred. Thus, Child-Custody_brandingcounselors can be unexpectedly swept into litigation because of misinformation, hidden agendas, the expansion of what started as a fairly simple role or even a lack of knowledge about court terminology and procedures (such as not recognizing when counselors are required to release information to the court and when they are not).

Counselors must be proactive and engage in cautious practice when interacting with high-conflict families and with court professionals. We offer counselors 10 simple guidelines to follow.

1) Be aware of ulterior motives. There is no question that individuals going through separation or divorce appropriately turn to counselors for support and guidance to get through one of life’s most challenging psychosocial events. But the possibility also exists that attorneys will refer clients to counseling for other reasons. For example, if a couple is involved in custody litigation, an attorney might refer a client to a counselor to document the client’s version of events or to set the stage for later seeking an opinion from the counselor about the client’s mental health status or ability to function as a parent. There may also be times when attorneys direct clients to bring their children to counseling in hopes of later soliciting a supporting opinion from the counselor regarding the individual’s abilities as a parent.

A counselor needs to be clear at the onset of the therapeutic relationship about why the client is there, what the client expects, what the counselor can and cannot do and whether the referral is from the client’s attorney for a specific reason. It is critical for the counselor to also know who the identified client is.

Counselors can certainly work with clients to enhance their coping skills and to effect change. If a client has a history of substance abuse, for example, proactive and voluntary involvement in counseling can demonstrate that client’s interest in and willingness to tackle a problem before being ordered to do so by a judge. Participation in counseling can also indicate effort and bolster a court’s impression that the client’s problem is under control.

However, it is important that counselors not be used to perpetuate a false impression for court purposes. Counselors cannot control the sincerity of a client’s motive, but we do not want to be complacent in a ruse to gain an advantage in court.

2) Know your role and avoid dual relationships/multiple roles. A counselor in a therapeutic role provides support for clients and empowers them to build on their existing strengths and make positive changes. In contrast, an evaluator gathers information from multiple angles and sources for the express purpose of rendering a report and recommendations to the court.

Counselors can certainly opine about the condition and progress of the client. However, counselors should not opine about the condition, progress or functionality of individuals they have not met or for whom they have limited information.

Sometimes the client, or an attorney, will ask the treating counselor to offer an opinion about specific issues such as parental fitness, abuse or domestic violence. The counselor must offer recommendations and opinions that are consistent with the counselor’s role and competency. For example, it might be fine to say that the client presents with symptoms consistent with someone who has been a victim of domestic violence. But if the counselor’s information is limited only to what the client has told the counselor, it would not be prudent to comment on the propensity of the client’s partner toward violence. Similarly, it would not be prudent to repeat the client’s statements as fact if the counselor was not present for the described events.

3) Be familiar with ethical codes, legal statutes and best practices. The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics specifically addresses issues such as informed consent and confidentiality, dual relationships, multiple roles and identifying the client. When in doubt about a situation, counselors need to always consult the ACA Code of Ethics and avail themselves of the ethical consultations made available through the American Counseling Association (call 800.347.6647 ext. 314 or email ethics@counseling.org).

It is also in the best interest of counselors to be familiar with their state laws and regulations. Some state laws include nuances that more clearly define when confidentiality must be broken, such as in cases of child abuse and neglect.

Counselors must also refrain from offering legal advice to clients, while at the same time remaining aware of laws in their jurisdictions so they can avoid guiding clients down the wrong path. Counselors should refer clients to attorneys when legal advice is needed and in the client’s best interest. One counselor encountered serious legal problems and a licensing board complaint when she suggested that a client, whom the counselor believed to be a victim of domestic violence, take the children and relocate to another country where the client’s family lived. States have specific laws regarding the removal of children from the jurisdiction. Removal of children without the permission of the court or consent from the other parent can result in criminal charges against the removing parent and a loss of custody.

4) Obtain consent and document all contact. Counselors should obtain copies of any documentation regarding custody and visitation when a separation or divorce is involved. Counselors need to ask for the most current copy of the court order and document that the copy is represented to be the most current copy. A counselor’s informed consent document should outline the expectation that all modified and updated court orders will be provided as they occur.

When there is no official documentation, counselors must keep detailed records about what they were told and by whom. Counselors working with children in divorce situations should seek consent and input from both parents whenever possible. When this is not possible, the reasons should be documented. Sometimes a court order will grant one parent sole custody of the children or sole decision-making authority. Other times one parent may state that the other parent isn’t involved because of estrangement or death. Client records need to reflect what the presenting parent has told the counselor so that the counselor will have a reasonable basis for proceeding if another parent surfaces and objects.

5) Offer support, not re-entrenchment. From a humanistic perspective, the therapeutic alliance is built upon support and unconditional positive regard for the client. However, in cases of high-conflict separation or divorce, there can be a fine line between the position that the client is 100 percent right and the estranged spouse is 100 percent wrong.

It can be difficult for two people to settle the economic and custody-based differences in their legal case when one person is cemented into a faulty belief system of entitlement or stuck in a position rooted in principle. Settlements result from the art of compromise, and positions based on principles can be expensive. In other words, clients are sometimes so concerned with winning a point that they lose sight of the big picture and end up jeopardizing more important elements of the case. Counselors sometimes do their clients a disservice by being so supportive of the client’s position that the client cannot move forward realistically through a legal system that is often more concrete in the application of the law.

6) Maintain neutrality where appropriate. This guideline pertains mostly to counselors working with children. It is easy to become invested in the parent whom the counselor sees or talks to most frequently. Hearing only one side of the story can absolutely affect the counselor’s view of the child’s experience, especially when the child has limited verbal or cognitive abilities, is not emotionally insightful or is not detail oriented.

Counselors should start with the understanding that children generally fare much better in divorce situations when they are not caught in the middle. Counselors serve the child well by supporting his or her relationship with both parents, unless there is a clear risk of harm to the child. Counselors can refer family members in need of support to other professionals to avoid conflicts of interest.

7) Do not offer an opinion of someone you have never met. It isn’t uncommon for a lawyer to ask a child’s counselor to render an opinion and recommendations regarding custody of the child or for a client’s counselor to opine regarding parental fitness and ability. However, the counselor should stick exclusively to what the counselor knows.

It is OK to speak about the counselor’s own client — with the client’s permission — to include what that client has reported, the consistency of words and affect, and impressions regarding that client. It is not wise, however, to offer comment on a parent whom the counselor has never met. Such comments would be based exclusively on what the parent who is a client has reported to the counselor. It is acceptable to state, “The client reported that her husband hit her,” but it is not advisable for the counselor to state, “Mr. Jones is an abusive man who is violent in his relationships. He should not be trusted to have custody of his son.”

8) Do not assume you can avoid court involvement. Some counselors think they can avoid court involvement by adding one or two phrases to their informed consent documents stating that they refuse to participate in court proceedings. Although there might be an argument that the client agreed to waive any right to call the counselor as a witness, a subpoena can trump that agreement. In other words, if an attorney subpoenas a counselor, the counselor will likely have to appear for a deposition or for a hearing.

The counselor can seek to have the subpoena quashed and should not release any clinical information until it is determined that the subpoena is valid and will be upheld. Best practices suggest that the counselor obtain consent from the counselor’s own client or an authorization to release information. However, even without that consent or waiver, the counselor may have to provide records or even testify.

Avoiding court begins the moment the client walks in the door. Informed consent and documentation are essential. Counselors should be trained in courtroom dynamics, testimony and legal and ethical issues even when it is the counselor’s preference to not go to court. Such measures, including ongoing communication with the client, can decrease the likelihood of having to participate in court proceedings.

9) Consult with your state licensing board, malpractice insurance carrier or attorney when necessary. If subpoenaed, consulting with an attorney before releasing records or providing testimony is wise. It is helpful for any counselor whose practice involves working with high-conflict families to have an attorney available for prompt consultation if necessary.

An attorney can review documents and guide the counselor regarding the process for balancing ethical responsibility and court involvement. Sometimes subpoenas can be quashed or suppressed. Some counselors make the mistake of responding to a threatening letter from legal counsel suggesting that the counselor must immediately make all records available. An attorney will know if the request or demand is valid in the counselor’s jurisdiction and can guide the counselor away from any ethical pitfalls associated with an incorrect response or the premature release of confidential records. Under no circumstance, however, should a subpoena simply be ignored.

10) Choose your words carefully. Wording can be everything. When asked for a report or an opinion, the counselor should confine his or her response to that which the counselor knows. Counselors should avoid supposition and assumption. It is acceptable to say, “My client stated …,” but it is not acceptable to respond as if the counselor was present or witnessed the event unless that is the case.

Simple wording can make a difference in how the counselor’s opinions or recommendations are received. When asked a question by an attorney, the counselor should listen to the question, think about it and then offer an answer that is responsive without providing more information than was requested.

Credibility is critical, and it is the counselor’s reputation (as well as the best interests of the client) on the line when the counselor renders an opinion or makes recommendations. The counselor must be able to support recommendations and opinions with facts, best practices and empirical evidence.

Conclusion

Counseling high-conflict families going through separation or divorce can present a slippery slope. The work is extremely important for the family unit and its individual members because they are dealing with an extremely challenging life event. However, cases involving the courts are stressful in even the simplest of cases. Many counselors prefer to maintain a supportive role and do not wish to do forensic (court-related) work. However, they can easily be maneuvered into the role of witness regardless of their efforts to avoid that position.

The guidelines provided in this article do not represent an exhaustive list of the professional and ethical responsibilities of counselors involved with high-conflict divorce cases. However, following these guidelines can help counselors maintain credibility, be more mindful of potential legal and ethical obligations and provide the client or family with needed emotional support. The guidelines should also remind counselors of the importance of receiving training for work with this population.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Ann M. Ordway has been an attorney for 25 years and practiced in family court for many years before entering the counseling profession. She is completing her doctorate in counselor education and supervision through Walden University. She is a distance clinical professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Populations at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Contact her at aordway@lamar.edu.

Ruth O. Moore is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor who is a distance clinical professor at Lamar University. She has extensive experience in expert witness testimony and has published and presented widely on court process in child abuse and child custody cases. Contact her at rmoore@lamar.edu.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

Family-centered, child-inclusive divorce

By Kristin Little and Karen Bonnell April 7, 2015

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 divorce_brandingall 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.

 

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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.

 

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