Divorce

How to Get the Most out of Working With a Child Therapist

Many children benefit from therapy when processing their parents' divorce.

Posted Jan 21, 2020

pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/Shutterstock
Source: pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/Shutterstock

As I addressed in a recent blog post, "Dating After Divorce," it is commonly understood that divorce, and the aftermath, is often difficult for children to process, whatever age they might be.

And recoupling—of one or both co-parents—adds another layer to the stressors that a child is already undergoing as a result of substantial changes in his or her day-to-day routine.

As a matrimonial and family law attorney, my clients often ask me questions like: “When should I tell the children?” “What should I say about the divorce or breakup?” “How do I help the children process this?” “How and when can I introduce a significant other?”

I have also encountered these issues from the other point of view in my role as an attorney for children when speaking to my clients, who are themselves children, and have questions of their own.

Working with mental health professionals is a significant and integral part of my practice, and I often speak to therapists on a daily basis. (It really does take a village and other points of view to make this work as well as possible.)  

Therapists often tell me how important it is for parents to be on the same page when speaking to their children about divorce. And I often tell my clients how important it is to foster the relationship between the children and their co-parent.

The way you and your soon-to-be-ex handle the divorce is critical to ensure your children emerge happy and physically and emotionally healthy. Avoiding conflict with your child’s other parent and making a point to never speak ill of him or her in front of the children are basic rules to follow.

But even in a “perfect” divorce or breakup, when parents use their very best judgment, a child’s interpretation of this new reality can be complex and misguided. In speaking with parents and children, I have learned that sometimes children blame themselves for the divorce; sometimes, they blame one of their parents; sometimes, they become angry, depressed, or exhibit other emotions.

These feelings and questions can fester; they can rock a child’s world and sabotage their relationships with others, including their friends and even their parents.  

For these reasons, sometimes it becomes necessary to enlist the help of a mental health professional who will support the children as they navigate this challenging situation.

How you as parents deal with the mental health professional as you proceed through your divorce is important to your child’s relationship with the therapist.

Let’s first remember that this is your child’s therapist—not your therapist.

As such, it is imperative that you and your co-parent are careful not to drag this important provider into your litigation or make this person the arbitrator of your matrimonial issues.

Here are some basic rules of the road for choosing and dealing with your child’s therapist:  

  • Before you enlist the help of a therapist(s), make sure your co-parent approves of the idea. Depending on your custody agreement, this is likely something both parties need to agree to before pursuing. If your co-parent is not on board, then you may need to consult with your attorney if you believe your child needs a therapist.
  • When possible, include your co-parent in choosing your child’s therapist and meet together with several therapists before determining which therapist may best suit your child’s needs.
  • Ask for recommendations for therapists with the right experience for the ages of your children.  You might want to ask your child’s pediatrician or school psychologist for recommendations.
  • Once you have found a mental health professional(s) who has the appropriate experience, meet with the therapist and your co-parent.  If you are comfortable, then ask for an introductory meeting with your child. If the child and the therapist do not “click” in some way after the first session or two, it might make sense to keep looking. Having a good rapport is critical to making therapy work.
  • Determine from the outset how you will pay for this therapy. It might be that you need to find a therapist who is “in-network” in one or the other’s insurance. Children’s insurance and therapeutic expenses are typically handled in the final divorce agreement but should be addressed at this time in some way. Your child’s therapist needs to be paid, so you need to figure this out before your child develops a relationship with this provider.

Once you find the right therapist for your child, it is important to ensure that this person is not utilized for litigation purposes, but instead is there for your child. Therefore:

  • Leave your child’s therapist out of your divorce litigation. This is about your child's emotional well-being and not about who prevails in a court of law.
  • Suspend any anger you may feel toward your ex-spouse when meeting with your child’s therapist.  
  • Do not malign your co-parent to your child’s therapist. The therapist is there for your child, and showing your ill-will toward the child’s other parent is not helpful and can turn into a time-wasting distraction.  
  • As much as practically possible, try to meet and communicate together with your co-parent and the therapist so that everyone can be on the same page to best help your child.

Important note: Sometimes, your child is not ready for therapy. This is an issue to address with a mental health professional before you introduce your child to a therapist.

Recommendation: You may also want to consult with your own therapist. This person can become an objective assessor of the situation, who can help you learn to communicate with your children about the changes in their lives and even help you co-parent with your former spouse.

And as I always say, please take time to take care of yourself, as well as your children, during this incredibly difficult time.

These opinions should not substitute as legal or mental health advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, it is critical to contact a family law attorney or mental health professional in your area as soon as possible.