Skip to content

Counseling a Child of Separated Parents? Therapists take heed:

July 18, 2016

Therapists take heed. Your counseling may make matters worse and could set you up for a professional complaint.

Children in distress between warring separated parents is common. The child, caught between the conflicting tugs and pulls of unresolved parental disputes can look anxious and/or depressed. Their behavior may be restless, sullen, withdrawn and/or aggressive. The child may not listen to the parent or teacher and may be rude, difficult to manage and/or may express disdain or preference for one or other parent.

In view of the child’s distress, a parent may seek counseling services, believing the child could benefit from a safe place to explore their feelings.

However counseling for a child between separated parents can make matters worse for the child.

Separated parents may worry that the child may say something that could influence the outcome of a parenting dispute regarding the care, residential arrangement or parental decision making responsibilities. Further a parent may be concerned that a child could be coached to provide misinformation about the child’s care or preferences to influence matters in a court process or other dispute resolution process.

In point of fact, some children are coached and some parents do use counseling as a means to manipulate the outcome of a court’s decision. As such parents then fight about who takes the child to counseling, who pays and who talks to the counselor. Many children in this situation are then questioned by their parents to find out what the child has said to the counselor.

The behavior of the separated parents fighting over the counseling intensify the very problems for which counseling was sought in the first place – children caught between their warring parents.

Not only are the children caught between the warring parents, but so too are the counselors. The counselors may feel slave between two masters, each with counter demands and each seeking to be privy to the content of the child’s sessions. Counselors caught between warring parents can also be subject to abuse by a parent including professional complaints.

Unless the separated parents are in agreement for the child to be in counseling and for the counseling to remain confidential and not be used for court purposes, counseling for the child, even though in distress, might best be avoided. Although counseling is typically seen as only helpful, in these situations it ramps up parental conflict and make matters worse for the child.

In lieu of counseling for the child, the degree to which the parents can be helped to resolve their differences the child can benefit. Strategies to facilitate resolving differences include parental education, mediation and collaborative law. Ongoing court and litigation is known to perpetuate and inflame parental conflict.

So, as tough as life may be between warring parents for the child, counseling may add fuel to the fire. That child may have to wait to attend counseling as an adult to redress the harm from the childhood exposure to parental conflict.

If however you are going to consider providing counseling to a child caught between separated parents, consider the following guidelines:

  1. Obtain both parents approval in writing to provide counseling service;
  2. Meet with both parents first prior to ever meeting with the child;
  3. Set out your terms of service including:
  • Confidentiality;
  • Cost;
  • Payment;
  • Right to terminate;
  • Court involvement;
  • Who attends or transports the child;
  • Goals;
  • Feedback sessions:

In working with children of separated parents, remember the old adage, “First do no harm.”

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out my services and then call me if you need help with child behavior or relationship issue.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

Linked In

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

  1. Agreed, for severe cases of parental alienation, standard therapy will not work and can often make it worse. here are some thoughts on what does work:

  2. Nancy Egger permalink

    I have always asked bith parents be present for my intake- we can then discuss the areas you identifiec, all at the same time. I also review the difference between therapy, in which the focus is o supporting the child, and forensic counseling to address recommendaions re: custody. This means they both hear the things at the same time so I don’t have to worry about forgetting something for one of them, establishing myself as the child’s therapist and not allied with one or the other, and their participation gives the child permission to speak with me.

  3. Tiffany permalink

    Thanks Gary for writing about this subject.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Counseling a Child of Separated Parents? Therapists take heed: — Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW | World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: