Even when two adults have the best of intentions, communication can be strained and emotions can run high when they are ending their relationship as spouses. A normal and natural part of divorce is the experiencing of distressing feelings, such as unhappiness, anger, guilt, frustration, and anxiety. If the marriage includes children, these youngsters are at risk to suffer the most from a divorce and to be least able to understand and express their feelings. Furthermore, communication with their parents may be difficult and they may feel as though they have to ‘choose sides’. In the midst of a divorce, even the most well-meaning parent can experience a clouded perspective on the needs and best interests of their children. Consultation with a Clinical Psychologist with specialized training and expertise with children, adolescents and parents can help to greatly reduce stress, assist to represent the concerns, needs and wishes of the youngsters, and improve communication among all parties.
A Consulting Clinical Psychologist is by far most valuable and effective if both parents work together with him or her, although seeking consultation by only one parent can be helpful. In brief, the Consultant performs three valuable roles:
1) Providing the children a safe setting within which to voice their concerns, feelings and wishes regarding the divorce and the future.
2) Providing the parents information and guidance to help them assist their children to best deal with the divorce and the establishment of separate households.
3) Giving information to the parents (and, with permission, both parties’ attorneys) that will assist everyone to develop an effective Parenting Plan.
This type of consultation is relatively short-term by design, with the specific purposes of addressing the needs, concerns and wishes of the youngster during the divorce process, and helping the parents to begin to develop a Parenting Plan and a respectful, “business-like” co-parenting relationship going forward.
When working with the children, the Consulting Clinical Psychologist provides a supportive, safe environment in which the children can:
– Feel listened to about their experience of the divorce
– Have an opportunity to ask questions
– Better understand what is happening to their family and seek clarification about and input into the changes in their lives
– Express their concerns, fears, wishes and hopes and have a “voice” in the process
– Receive support and comfort
Additionally, the Consultant strives with the parents and the youngsters to prevent the children from feeling “caught in the middle” between their parents.
With the parents, the Consulting Clinical Psychologist can facilitate a detailed discussion regarding the children’s viewpoint and issues so that the adults can best meet the needs of their children. This information from the child’s perspective can provide insight into how the child is coping. In addition, the Consultant can highlight any developmental issues, special needs and any concerns the youngster may manifest. The Consultant’s input may be especially helpful for some parents in order to shift away from “my time” with the child to the child’s time and needs, and away from focusing strictly on financial issues regarding the child (e.g., Child Support) to the youngster’s developmental and emotional needs. It is also important to note that, unlike the role of a Clinical Psychologist in a Child Custody Evaluation, it is contraindicated in this specific role for the Consulting Clinical Psychologist to make recommendations regarding custody, provide evaluation regarding mental illness, determine the appropriateness of parent actions, directly develop a Parenting Plan or provide a written report or court testimony. Most importantly, the Consultant does not take the ‘side’ of either parent, but rather focuses on communicating and working with both of them regarding the needs and interests of their children and the importance of respectful co-parenting going forward.
A divorce is by its nature one of the most stressful experiences that adults can go through. When divorce involves children, how well the youngsters adjust to the changing family depends in large measure on how well their parents interact with and treat each other and how well they co-parent and place their children’s needs and concerns as a priority. A Clinical Psychologist with expertise with children and parents can be an invaluable resource to divorcing spouses and their children by helping to foster a safe, supportive environment, minimizing emotional ‘roadblocks’, giving voice to the children’s perspective and promoting healthy communication, mutual problem-solving and the honest, respectful exchange of information. At the end of a marriage, the building of an effective, respectful co-parenting relationship is one of the greatest gifts that divorcing couples can give their children–and themselves.
Douglas O. Lipp, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist