HCD8186 - SECTION 5: INTERVENTIONS WITH HIGH-CONFLICT PARENTS
Reality therapy for divorced parents:
No matter what clinical approach you take with HCD clients, here are a number of points that must be reinforced many times. It is wise to print out these statements on a handout and continually refer to them. Consider this part of cognitive therapy whenever a parent gets caught up in his or her emotions.
Note that several of the statements below deal with clarifying the roles of domiciliary and non-domiciliary parents.
- The legal divorce ends a marriage, but it does not end co-parenting responsibilities.
- Children really do need both parents, no matter what one ex-spouse may think of another.
- Re-marriage does not provide substitute parents, no matter how wonderful the step-parents are; only the primary parents (adoptive or biological) can provide certain things the children need.
- In joint custody arrangements, the domiciliary parent is generally supposed to foster a good relationship between the children and the other parent.
- The domiciliary parent does not have the right to change visitation dates or times arbitrarily, nor can he or she withhold vital information about the children, such as which schools they attend or which doctors they see.
- The non-domiciliary parent is responsible for getting school information from the school, not from the domiciliary parent, making his or her own school conference plans, etc.
- The court does not equate domiciliary and non-domiciliary status with “superior” and “inferior” parenting.
- Disagreements or non-cooperation about finances (child support) are separate issues from the parenting plan. The child needs time with both parents no matter what the financial arrangement is.
- Young children should not be allowed to “choose” whether or not they follow the parenting plan. The parent whom the child is leaving is responsible for preparing the child for a pleasant time in the other parent’s home.
- Children’s needs over time may require changes in parenting plans.
- Changes of time-sharing and/or domiciliary status are common, even
in low-conflict divorces. However, they occur in low-conflict divorces because the parents are able to collaborate about the children’s needs; they often occur in high-conflict divorce as a sort of “win/lose” battle between the parents.
Clarifying vague legal language and misperceptions
The first session is also a vital time to check on the parent’s understanding of certain legal terms. Many times, parents have misperceptions about how much decision-making power they have. For example, domiciliary mothers sometimes believe they have the right to refuse visitation because of a late child support payment.
Also, many non-domiciliary parents believe they are “not allowed” to contact the children’s schools or doctors. It is helpful to give your clients a handout explaining these legal roles in simple language. (This is not legal advice; it is education about parenting roles.)
Another important consideration is about visitation terminology. If the judgment uses vague language (such as “reasonable visitation” or “share the holidays equally,”) you may ask the parents to work this out in a more precise fashion. This will cut down conflict considerably.
“Reasonable visitation” is a phrase sure to cause trouble. It allows the domiciliary parent to determine what “reasonable” is, and does not protect the relationship between the children and other parent.
“Sharing the holidays equally” does not address the exact dates and times of exchanges. A common solution is the odd-year/even year split. For example, in 2006, the father would have Easter and the mother would have Thanksgiving; in 2007 these would be reversed. In 2008, the father would have Easter and the mother would have Thanksgiving again.
Parents can get over-emotional about wanting to be with their children on “the” holiday—particularly a religious or family-oriented one. This often leads to arrangements in which the children spend half of “the” day with one parent, with an exchange for the latter half of “the day.”
Many grown children now look back on this arrangement with anger, feeling their happiness was sacrificed to the parents’ needs. These adult children report they would have preferred to alternate “the day” so they could have enjoyed it fully with one side of the family in alternative years.
It may be necessary to help the parent grieve the loss of the fantasized “perfect holiday.” You can help normalize this by pointing out that almost all stepfamilies or families with shift-working parents regularly miss celebrating on “THE day.”
Be sure to help the parent prepare for spending holiday time without the children—and prepare the parent to make the child’s leave-taking guilt-free.
Normalize when possible
Reassure parents that many of their family dynamics would also be operating in non-divorced families. For example, adolescents rebel against parents all over the world, and two-year olds throw tantrums. Young children experience separation anxiety and need to be addressed confidently and lovingly that the separation is temporary and both the child and the separated parent will have fun until they are reunited.
It’s also normal to grieve the loss of the marriage, to be jealous of an ex-spouse’s new marriage or better economic situation. However, these feelings must be handled in a mature way, and therapy is an excellent resource for these situations.
Many oversensitive people will interpret an event not to their liking as “terrible” or “traumatic.” For example, if a parent is late to pick up a child at school, this is not “traumatic.” It may be inconvenient for the child, and possibly for the school staff.
However, such a problem can be handled with a few phone calls. Unfortunately, parents with poor reality-testing, histrionic or sociopathic traits may interpret this event as a sign of the late parent’s serious neglect of the child. Taken by itself, this one incident is NOT serious enough to call “neglect” and could happen in any family.
Overly sensitive parents need help with cognitive therapy, particularly to learn not to “awfulize” or “catastrophize” events. Parents with sociopathic traits, who wish to manipulate even slightly questionable events to their own advantage, need a rational rebuttal and reframing of the event as falling within normal parenting. (Of course, if the event IS questionable, you must pursue further questioning, albeit in an even-handed way.)
Separation Anxiety in High-Conflict Divorce
Mothers’ innate biology as well as cultural shaping encourages them to believe that the children belong with them. America’s cultural norm is still that mothers tend to do most of the child care, particularly with infants. Whereas the divorce laws used to be based on “maternal preference,” this is no longer true.
Many judges will award a 50/50 split of time between households, even for very young children. Divorcing mothers are often shocked to learn that they may be separated from even young children for considerable periods of time.
Separation anxiety is the major problem for mothers of young children. The research is clear that fragile mothers are likely to have behaviors that instill anxiety in their children during parting. For example, the mother may cry, clutch at the baby, or even reject the baby in the attempt to not feel the pain of separation. A small child will be very vulnerable to these triggers.
Toddler and preschool children will react to mother’s distress by mirroring it. A link is then made between the father’s arrival, the mother’s distress, and the child’s pain. The father’s arrival then becomes the “trigger” for the child’s bad feelings, and it is then easy for the mother to believe that the child is afraid of leaving with the father.
A major focus of counseling in these cases is to help mothers break their part in the cycle for the child’s sake. Since fragile mothers may have a hard time separating the children’s needs from their own, this may require extensive therapy time.
Of course, fragile fathers may also exhibit this unhealthy behavior, but since only 14% of fathers are the residential parents, it is not as common a problem among men.
Techniques to teach anxious parents:
- Preparing for the exchange with a happy ritual, such as packing the child’s favorite teddy bear in a special knapsack.
- Talking to the child about what a good time he or she will have at the other parent’s house. (“You’ll get to see Mommy and Granny,” or “I know Daddy’s going to help you learn to ride your bike.”)
- Telling the child that the anxious parent will be okay while the child is gone. (“I’m going to see a movie and then the next day when you come back, I’ll tell you all about it.”)
- Having the child’s belongings (and medicines) all packed so that the transition takes places quickly and smoothly.
- Acknowledging the child’s other parent at the time of the exchange with a pleasant greeting but keeping other conversation for later. No new information should be exchanged at this time lest it start up a conflict.
- If one parents attempts to start up a new topic, the other parent should be prepared with a deferring statement such as “I will call you as soon as I get home to discuss this, but for now, let’s just get Tommy settled in with you.”
- Phone calls to “check on the child” should be kept to a minimum. The very young child has no concept of telephone conversations; this is to soothe the parent’s anxiety but may raise the child’s. Furthermore, the other parent will likely resent the intrusion on his or her time. Phone calls to 5-year olds and above can be limited to once a day, and should be upbeat and brief. In very hostile cases, older children are often given “secret cell phones” to keep in touch with one parent.
Helping the over-emotive parent:
Histrionic or borderline traits in parents often put the “high-conflict” in high-conflict divorce. These over-emotive people cannot regulate their emotions well and have difficulty accessing their rational and objective side. As therapists, we can help them best by cultivating their cognitive skills and decreasing their emotional outbursts.
Obviously, the over-emotive person has a great deal of difficulty moving through divorce and letting go. People with histrionic and/or borderline traits are erratic in their parenting. They may dote on their children one minute and reject or ignore them the next. They are very prone to wanting to be the children’s “favorite parent.” Two such parents turn the parent-child relationship upside-down, with the two parents vying for favors to be bestowed by the children.
Example of an avoidant-histrionic pairing:
Mel is a 40-year old math professor at the local college. Lisa is a 38-year old stay-at-home mom who has domiciliary custody of their two daughters, Gina, age 5, and Hester, age 7. The couple was married for 15 years and just divorced 6 months ago. Lisa had filed for divorce after having a short-lived affair. Mel moved out of the house and into an apartment near campus. He has his daughters every other weekend and takes them to dinner on the alternate Wednesday evenings.
Lisa comes to your office with her primary complaint being that “Mel doesn’t care about the children.” She cites his declining the last two Wednesday dinner opportunities, and says that he never calls the girls.
She is very angry that he does not return her phone calls and gives only minimal responses to her long emails. She made this appointment because Mel showed up at the last exchange with a woman in his car. Lisa thought this was inappropriate and refused to allow the girls to go to with their father.
When Mel arrives for his first appointment, he states, “I love my girls, I just don’t want to have to deal with their mother anymore.” He states that Lisa’s affair was “a total surprise” and “broke his heart.” He didn’t file for divorce, but was rather relieved when she did.
The woman who accompanied him was a colleague whom he brought along because he was afraid of another one of Lisa’s outbursts when he picked up the children. He doesn’t understand why Lisa has the nerve to yell at him when the divorce is “all her fault.” He admitted that he has started dating his colleague, but has no plans to “get serious” so soon.
In this example, the avoidant parent’s defense of detachment increases the anxiety level of the histrionic parent. Her demands for confrontation - and to be listened to - then prompt more attempts at withdrawal by the avoidant parent.
Dealing with allegations of mental illness, drug abuse or physical/sexual abuse
If you choose to work with high-conflict divorce, you will certainly face the issue of allegations of mental illness or abuse. Depending on what role you are playing—child therapist, adult therapist, court-appointed parenting coordinator, or evaluator, you will have different legal and ethical responsibilities.
Be sure you understand the requirement of the jurisdiction for reporting allegation, either to the police department or the social service agency. You are responsible for complying with the laws and ethical code of your profession.
These parents may well have histories of domestic violence, drug abuse, or mental illness. However, you must stay focused on the present. Parents are likely to bring up past allegations or documented instances of abuse, or tell you about an incident which would legally be considered hearsay.
High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:
If a parent’s allegation of child sexual abuse is deemed credible by Child Protection, the parent accused of the abuse loses all visitation rights for an indefinite period.
Parental Mental Illness and/or Substance Abuse
- What is the nature of the alleged disorder? What symptoms and behaviors have been documented? What is the frequency of duration of the illness or substance abuse?
- Is the parent in question currently in treatment? With whom, and for how long? What is the nature and effectiveness of this treatment? Is the parent in question now in remission? For how long? How has this affected the parent’s parenting skills?
- How well does the accusing parent understand the illness or substance abuse problem? Does the accusing parent have a history of such a problem? Does the accusing parent understand whether this will have an impact on the parenting arrangement?
- Are the children capable of being educated about the signs and nature of the illness? What has been the impact of this disorder on the children? (Baris & Coates, 269-270)
Allegations of Physical/Sexual Abuse
A crucial point with allegations is whether they also occurred pre- rather than only post-divorce. The person alleging that the abuse was chronic and occurred pre-divorce will need to provide reasonable documentation in order for the Court to consider the complaints valid.
In order to sort out legitimate concerns from emotionalism or manipulations by a vindictive parent, consider the following when listening to the allegations.
- How do you know of this event?
- Were there any witnesses?
- If you were present, what was your behavior?
- Is this a violation of a restraining order? If so, check the restraining order to be sure it is valid.
- Has anyone reported this event to a pediatrician, the police or social service agency?
As therapists, we must balance our desire to help with our need to remain objective. We must remember that fragile or personality-disordered parents may be perceiving events through a faulty lens—and that fragile or personality-disorder parents are capable of abusive behavior as well.
Unfortunately, many abuse allegations are unsubstantiated and are ploys to punish the ex-partner or keep him or her from being able to see the children.
There are thousands of internet sites devoted to teaching such manipulative techniques to angry parents.
When the threats are deemed valid by the appropriate agency, you may be given recommendations by the agency or the Court regarding your scope of practice with the family. For example, you may be requested to do anger-management or reconciliation work with a parent.
High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:
The National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse (1993) estimated that about 3 million abuse and neglect reports are made each year, but only one-third are substantiated after an investigation.
High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:
There is a sharp spike in statistics when you correlate the time around divorce with the reporting of alleged abuse. When custody is in dispute, over 83% of abuse and neglect allegations turn out to be false. Dr. Melvin Greyer, Family Law Project of the University of Michigan, in Watnik, p. 272