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Separated Parents: Mental Health Professionals need specific knowledge and training.

April 17, 2016

Many mental health professionals fail to appreciate the difference between their typical clinical client and those clients seen in the context of separation or divorce.

Clients seen clinically more often acknowledge a personal issue. They are depressed and/or anxious and/or present with any other significant mental health concern. These are persons who are unsettled by their distress and feel the problem is somehow or other with them self. They are considered ego-dystonic.

This contrasts to people seen in the context of separation or divorce. While the client may present as upset, depressed or anxious, these clients are more apt to attribute the source of their distress to the other. It is as if they say, I am fine myself, or at least wouldn’t have any issues if not for the problems imposed by my partner or former partner. These clients are considered ego-syntonic.

When one is ego-dystonic, they are open to self-reflection and considering the impact of their own behavior in creating or maintaining the problem. They are open to considering strategies to alter one’s own thinking, feeling or behaving. They are in a position to take some degree of responsibility towards their own recovery.

This is not the case when someone is ego-syntonic. In believing the source of distress lies outside oneself in either a situation or other person, the person in distress sees no responsibility towards the solution directly. They see them self as the passive victim to the behavior of the other and that it is the responsibility of the other to change.

Unless this is clearly understood and appreciated by the mental health professional it can be difficult to near impossible to to help this separated parent make any direct change that might improve their situation.

In this context then, our help is not so much directed towards helping this person develop insight or take responsibility for what may be their contribution to distress. Our help may be better aimed towards facilitating strategies for coping with or better managing the contributions of the other.

Without necessarily accepting or rejecting the problems identified as originating with their partner or former partner, we still can help our client manage their own emotions, effectively problems solve and respond with behaviors that promote reasonable boundaries. In this way, we are more coach than mental health healer.

The other challenge for many mental health professionals working with separated parents, particularly if involved in the family law system, are the tugs and pulls of that system. While the mental health professional is seeking to facilitate well being and reasonable relationships, the family law system may be seeking documentation and allies in support of one parent over the other. This is ripe for creating conflicts of interest and undermining the role of the mental health professional as they are pushed from helping towards advocating. This inherently creates concern for bias and role creep – where the role shifts from what was intended to working on behalf of one parent over the other.

If you are a mental health professional working with separated parents and these concerns resonate and you feel either lost or caught between competing interests, this is a sign your role may have been or is about to be compromised and you are at risk of acting beyond your scope of practice. This is a sign you may benefit from supervision or at least a consultation. Working with separated parents with regard to their separation is a specialized area of practice and it may interest you to know that there are suggested guidelines and standards of practice for these situations.

If you are the parent seeking support or guidance through your separation or seeking support for your child in the process of separation, do seek help from a mental health professional who has specific knowledge and training in this area. To assure yourself that your mental health professional has knowledge or experience in this area of practice, ask.

Do you know someone who might benefit from this information? Please scroll down and share this article. To view my full list of peacemaking strategies to facilitate settlement, check this out. Thank you.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships






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