Since I began practicing in 2007, I have worked with many families in which the parents were going through a divorce. I have been subpoenaed to testify in Family Court over two dozen times. While occasionally it’s necessary for me to testify to advocate for the well-being of a child, I am saddened by the frequency of these requests. Psychologists are often subpoenaed to serve parents, but it does not protect the children. Children’s therapists should not routinely testify because it often compromises the child’s therapeutic relationship. If the motive for taking the child to therapy is to engage their provider in court testimony against a former spouse, parents must ask whether they are serving their child’s best interest or their own.
In this post, I want to address parents going through divorce and encourage them to reach out to mental health professionals who can help them and their children navigate this difficult time. Therefore, I want to give them some tools to support their children and effectively manage their own emotions.
Here are some factors to consider before making your child’s mental health treatment about court testimony and some recommendations that might help as you navigate custody and visitation challenges:
Your child’s mental health challenges are not your ex-spouse’s fault. It certainly is true that divorce is hard on everyone. It is also absolutely true that your child will be affected by the divorce. Your child may be sad, angry, and scared. Children often worry that the divorce was their fault. Or they may develop separation anxiety from their parents when one of the parents moves out of the home. Your child will grieve the loss of the family as it once was, even if there was conflict. In many cases, children need to see a counselor to support their adjustments, and they can also benefit from a support group. However, it is misleading to identify the divorce as the central cause of any mental health problems. Many children would have had mental health challenges anyway. There are many reasons why children become depressed, anxious, or have school related problems. The reality is that there are complex reasons why children struggle emotionally, and divorce is definitely a factor. But neither parent causes the mental health challenges of their children in the context of divorce. Neither parent is solely to blame for the child’s mental health problems. Furthermore, the solution, even in cases where the parents bear some responsibility, is not to remove the parent from the child’s life.
Your parent-child relationship may be negatively affected by attempting to remove the other parent from your child’s life. Parents who engage in ugly court battles, continuously make derogatory statements about their ex’s acts in front of their children, or attempt to alienate the child from the other parent may ultimately do more damage to their own relationship with their child. Sometimes, they initially have success. I have seen many children who have formed negative opinions of a parent. They begin to not want to spend time with that parent. But I’ve also seen many cases where the child later turns against the alienating parent. Or, in the worst case scenario, the child becomes estranged from both parents as an adult. Parents who are considering removing their ex from the child’s life for any reason must consider the risks involved in doing so.
You can’t dictate how your ex raises the children. You may be a good parent: you have figured out how to discipline, how to support their education, how to love them well, and how to shape them into wonderful human beings. Part of the reason that you divorced may be due to differences in parenting preferences. But now that you are divorced, you have even less power over how they will be parented by your ex partner. Coparenting — continuing to work together to effectively parent even after the marriage has ended — has mixed success. Most of the families with whom I have worked have not had much success with it. This is largely due to the level of conflict between the couple. It can be successfully executed with two cooperating parents whose first priority is their children. But even in the best coparenting scenarios, you cannot control what the other parent does. When the children are in the care of one parent, that person can decide how much screen time they get, what they eat, what they do, and when they go to bed. This may not be congruent with your choices.
My advice is to focus on your own parenting. Give them good meals when they are with you, limit screen time as advised, help them develop healthy sleep routines, and teach them good self-care. As they grow older, they will develop the healthy habits that you taught them. Obviously, there are circumstances that warrant concern. Suspicion of abuse or other maltreatment should be investigated. However, in the majority of cases that I’ve seen, while one parent makes better choices, the other parent can still be capable of having custody. When negotiating shared custody following a divorce, both parents have to pick their battles carefully: the more time spent in court, the less time parents spend with their children.
Your ex will likely never agree with you. This one may seem like common sense, but I have worked with enough divorced parents that I think it’s worth saying anyway. The question all divorced parents must ask continuously is “who is my top priority?” You may be extremely angry with your ex, and you may be very well justified. The reality is that even a family court judge can’t make your ex agree with you. If revenge is what you are seeking, or simply “I told you so,” is it worth risking your relationship with your children? Do you respond to your anger by fighting in court? Or, is it a wiser choice to get your own therapy, so you can work through your anger.
Your child’s therapist is not your advocate. The child is not only the client of record, but also the priority of their therapist. It is important for the therapist to guide both parents in better understanding their child’s problems and needs. But it is not appropriate for the therapist to see only the viewpoint of one parent or to begin advocating for the removal of custody from one of the parents. It is not the therapist’s role to focus on either parent, but instead to treat the child’s mental health challenges. The exception would be in cases of known abuse, but even then, it’s not the therapist’s decision. Therapists are mandated to report suspicion of abuse to child protective services, but their focus then returns to providing supportive care and interventions to the child in the family. There have been times when it was necessary for me to give testimony that was not favorable toward a parent. On these occasions, there were grave concerns regarding the children’s well-being and safety.
If your divorce and custody situation needs professional consultation to determine who is more fit to have custody, a custody evaluation is a better choice than using the child’s therapist as your witness. There are psychologists who conduct comprehensive custody evaluations for parents in contentious custody battles. This is the route to take if you believe your ex is abusing your child or putting them in direct danger. However, in most cases, children’s mental health outcomes are far more positive when parents work together and seek a holistic approach to address their child’s emotional and psychological functioning.