across the Pacific Region
The Child's Therapist - part of the problem or part of the solution?
Issues - Autumn Edition 2023
The Child's Therapist - part of the problem or part of the solution?
The Child’s Therapist – part of the problem or part of the solution?
It is essential for psychologists involved in providing treatment for children whose parents are involved in Family Law litigation that they be more forensically informed, fully cognizant that they may be in receipt of a single side of the story, that that child may be severely entwined amidst an unresolvable loyalty conflict, that they may feel a pressure to align to one parent or one parent’s story in favour of the other, and may be heavily influenced by one parent in favour of the other.
Divorce is not a single event but rather a process that involves all family members across a period of time, that often entails a beginning that significantly predates the actual separation. The breakdown of the family unit impacts significantly on all family members with children experiencing the impact of divorce not more or less but differently given their age and stage of development.
The social science research suggests that the two factors most likely to impact on the outcome for children of divorce are the level of conflict to which children are exposed and the level of parenting able to be sustained in the divorce period and its aftermath. It is not uncommon for parents going through divorce to be psychologically depleted to be less emotionally attuned to their children, and that overall, the quality and the standard of their parenting, for a period at least, to be compromised. Not surprisingly, in such context, children whose parents are going through divorce experience higher levels of anxiety and distress, are more prone to problems of acting out and are more likely to experience a range of psychological difficulties and developmental interference.
The emotional distress experienced by children whose parents are going through divorce often results in symptoms for which treatment is sought and psychological referral made. Unlike in other cases where children are referred for psychological treatment to relieve symptoms, the referral of a child for psychological treatment in the context of divorce litigation requires a level of objectivity and forensic awareness that may be unfamiliar to psychologists not routinely involved in these difficult matters. The risk for such psychologists, is that by losing objectivity, not maintaining unequivocal neutrality, and by not appreciating the legal complexities of a simple referral, runs the very significant risk of contributing negatively to these children’s lives, fueling parent conflict and exacerbating an already difficult situation.
It is essential for psychologists involved in providing treatment for children whose parents are involved in Family Law litigation that they be more forensically informed and aware, be fully cognizant of the fact that they may be in receipt of a single side of the story, that that child may, to a more or less extent, be severely entwined amidst an unresolvable loyalty conflict, that they may feel a pressure to align to one parent or one parent’s story in favor of the other, and may be heavily influenced by one parent in favor of the other. The Psychologist more informed in relation to Family Law matters will understand the importance of ensuring that both parents are aware of the request for, and give their support and permission for treatment, that both parents need to be a part of the process and that a referral by one parent for treatment of their child(ren), in the absence of the support, participation and approval of the other parent may at best be naïve, and may not acknowledge the importance of joint parental responsibility and joint parental decision-making, and at worse, may not recognize that the referral may reflect a tactical move on the part of one parent to gather evidence in support of their particular application. This type of involvement, at the request of one party may also reflect an attempt to obtain tacit support, approval and the enlistment of that psychologist as a team barracker, or be an invitation to participate in the process described by Janet Johnston as “tribal warfare”.
It is not uncommon for Family Law litigants to engage a tribe of supporters to advocate their view, fight their battles, escalate their conflict, denigrate the other parent, and to establish a choir of supporters who loudly sing a melody of fault and blame. It is also not uncommon that children, under the guise of referral for psychological treatment are also enlisted in this process, as are their therapists. The Psychologist more informed in relation to Family Law matters will understand from the outset the importance of maintaining objectivity, neutrality and balanced objectivity. Unlike more traditional areas of psychological treatment, the more forensically informed psychologist will understand that effective intervention might involve more than just accepting the child’s view of reality, and more certainly, they will not advocate that view at the behest of one parent, with any sense of confidence or certainty, if at the very least they have not had the opportunity to speak with or observe the child with the other parent.
It is regrettably commonplace for psychologists to offer an opinion in relation to a child, parenting matters, parent capability and in some cases even offer an opinion about what amount of time a child should spend with a parent without having even seen that parent, let alone having seen the child in the company of that parent; it is still regrettably commonplace for psychologists to proffer diagnostic opinion about persons that they have not even met, based on what they have been told by their partner. It is a serious flaw to been drawn unilaterally into providing an opinion, in the context of Family law litigation, to not question why the other parent is not involved, whether the other parent even knows about the referral, whether there are Court Orders pertaining to joint parental responsibility or Court Orders that make specific reference to, or restrict the access to medical or psychological treatment for the child. Many Psychologists are unaware that Family Court Orders often entail such restrictions, or that it is commonplace for there to be Orders reflecting joint parental responsibility. It is a significant mistake to make diagnosis of a person based solely on the information provided by one parent, to express a view about the nature of a marital relationship without having benefit of having spoken to both parents, or to express an opinion about a child’s relationship with the other parent without some involvement with that parent.
There may be confusion and contradiction when it comes to the Guidelines for Working with Young People (2009), intended to assist psychologists working in the complex area of child and adolescent mental health and the commonly held view both in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia that if a child is referred for treatment of any sort, and if there is joint parental responsibility, that both parents should at the very least be consulted and more specifically, both parents should give their permission for their child to receive that treatment.
No Psychologist should, based on the information provided by one parent alone, even if seemingly consolidated by the presentation of the child, but in the absence of having met the other parent, proffer an opinion about matters to do with the child’s relationship with the other parent, make comment about the other parent or their parenting capacity; they should not express a view about what should or should not happen in relation to time spent with that parent, or convey opinion about any matter pertaining to parenting plans; they should not even suggest diagnosis in relation to a person whom they have not met, let alone commit that diagnosis to paper.