Parents are often asked to participate in court-ordered therapy, either individually for themselves or their child, or together with their children in conjoint family therapy. Sometimes they want to participate, and other times they do not see the point. I don’t blame them. Parents can get caught up in custody battles or financial negotiations. I’ve heard it explained that it’s almost like life or death to them. Their nervous system certainly reacts as if it was. Anxiety, nervousness, and defensiveness are common in families with high-conflict situations in Family Court.
Parents and Disputes
What happens as a result? It becomes a battle between parents: who gets the children for what percentage of the time, who gets the house, whether alimony is paid, and how other assets are divided. Often, people going through this are caught up in a fight or flight response in their bodies that they are unable to see the impact on their children. As a result, the children’s needs are often lost and not addressed.
Sometimes, attorneys impact these families with their opinions about how things should go. The attorneys could have undergone personal struggles in a custody dispute or have personal opinions formed by past relationships. An attorney’s emotional background can intertwine with their client’s battle. Again, the children are lost.
It’s hard enough on parents going through a custody dispute or divorce. The conflictual and hurt feelings they experience towards each other tend to leak onto their perceptions of their children. When mistrust grows between two parents, fear and anxiety grow too. So when a child comes back from a parent’s house and is upset or doesn’t sleep well that night, the receiving parent can get scared that something terrible is happening at the other parent’s house. Every little reaction a child has after seeing the other parent could mean something catastrophic; new fears and mistrust flare up.
These situations are all fueled by the court battle; the more the parents mistrust each other in court, the more they start to doubt each other with their child. The parents begin to think one parent could be alienating the child from the other or that they may even be abusing the child. It’s a vicious cycle interconnected with parents’ feelings about each other.
Impact on Children:
Parents who go through this cycle have an influence on their children’s perspectives. Often, they don’t mean to alienate their children, but they can get caught up in fears, anxiety, and feelings of betrayal from their co-parents. The children feel all of this tension and act accordingly.
Children don’t need to hear a word about the court case to know there is tension between their parents. Sometimes, children choose one parent over the other to pick the path of least resistance. They can decide on their own if they don’t want to be in the middle of the fighting. Other times, there are justified reasons that influence a child’s decision to reject a parent.
Children can be influenced by their parents’ stress and exhibit emotional and behavioral reactions. These reactions can show up in school as well as transitions from one home to another in the form of stress or lashing out. Children and teens can become combative and resistant to the point of engaging in power struggles.
Why do children react with negative behaviors or shut down? Their world has turned upside down. It has become out of their control, and they cannot do anything to stop the tension. However, some try to stop it. Most children have some emotional reaction to fighting parents, whether within intact families or in custody disputes. Even babies can react negatively to the adults around them if there is a lot of tension or stress.
Impact on the Therapy Room
What happens in the courtroom is often not about the children. They need therapeutic support to cope with their stress. However, sometimes that therapy room is negatively impacted by what is happening in court.
Parents may fight about who is taking the child to an appointment or who pays. They also may try to pull a therapist into court to testify or ask them to write a treatment summary that leads to being subpoenaed. Many therapists will not work with children in the middle of active custody disputes due to the high risk of receiving a subpoena. Therapists don’t want court involvement, which may result in changing therapists. Again, this may negatively impact a child. It’s challenging to build rapport between a client and their therapist, making it difficult for children to switch therapists.
What Can Help Protect Children’s Mental Health Care?
When children need individual therapy, it’s best to keep the individual therapist out of the courtroom or any disputes. Here are some tips to help protect your child’s ability to attend therapy without interruption or switching therapists:
Parents Can Help By:
- Signing paperwork at court agreeing not to involve the individual therapist in the court process: no reports or testimony.
- Working out a schedule ahead of time regarding who is taking their child to therapy.
- Deciding if they are splitting the payment for therapy copays or another payment arrangement.
- Keeping in contact with the therapist for updates and involvement if necessary.
Parents need support to help keep their children from being impacted by negative courtroom dynamics. It’s hard to navigate a divorce or custody dispute, and nobody’s perfect. It’s okay to ask for help. We’re all on your child’s team and want to support parents too.
Begin Working With A Children’s Therapist in San Diego, CA
Our therapists can help you and your family learn effective communication skills, find coping strategies, and start to heal in spite of the negativity brought on by courtroom dynamics. We would be happy to offer support from our San Diego, CA-based practice and across the state. To start your therapy journey, please follow these simple steps:
- Request an appointment by completing our form online or calling (858) 776-8804
- Meet with a therapist from our team
- Start receiving the support you deserve!
Other Services Offered with Family Connections Therapy
Our team understands you may deal with a variety of mental health concerns. We offer many options to support your mental health, including children’s therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, couples therapy, and reunification therapy. We offer services in person as well as online for your convenience. Some of our specialties include but are not limited to therapy for ADHD, LGBTQIA+, and depression, and our therapists are well-versed in play therapy as well as therapy for attachment and healthy development. Reach out now to learn more about our counseling services!