Parents care deeply for their children and want to mitigate the negative impact divorce can have. Parents who choose collaborative divorce over litigation do so because they are committed to putting the needs of their children first. We all know if children are to grow up healthy, both physically and emotionally, they need to have good relationships with both parents - before, during, and after the divorce.
While the collaborative divorce process has many mechanisms in place that offer our clients the best chance to make that a reality, couples seeking divorce often end up on the collaborative divorce doorstep with baggage acquired during the marriage. Indeed, they have come to us because they are getting a divorce, and it is important to note that parenting issues may be part of that baggage. Additionally, underlying resentments between parents might not have come to the surface just yet and now that the collaborative divorce process is in motion, the symptoms of parent/child contact issues may begin to arise. They are easier to recognize than you might think.
Some common phrases you might hear from your clients include: “I took care of the children twenty-four seven when we were married, now he suddenly wants to be father of the year;” or “If she wasn’t a workaholic, she might know that our son is allergic to shellfish;” or “He doesn’t even know the name of our daughter’s pediatrician.” These types of statements can alert us to potential child/parent contact problems. However, when more serious comments start creeping into conversations, it is a good bet that resentments will soon pose a problem to the collaborative process. Statements, such as: “Billy hates it at his mother’s apartment, I don’t see how that’s my problem;” or “Rachel just isn’t comfortable staying with her dad right now;” or “My son says his father is way too strict and controlling. He shouldn’t have to put up with that.” When we as professionals start hearing these kinds of things from our clients, it is clearly time to act.
What can we do to prevent these problems from spiraling out of control and ultimately undermining the collaborative process? Here are five things your team can try that might help your clients truly achieve the goal of putting their children’s needs above their own.
- Educate – rely on your Neutral Mental Health Professional (NMHP) to teach your clients how to encourage their children to have a better relationship with both parents.
- Use the book, Divorce Casualties, by Douglas Darnell, PhD. There is an extremely useful tool called the Parental Alienation Scale (PAS) in the Appendix, that each parent can use to do a self-assessment about how they are doing in regard to encouraging a good relationship between their children and the other parent.
- Suggest that each parent see their own counselor who can help them deal appropriately with any resentments that might play a part in the problem.
- Recommend that your clients take a coparenting class. Many are offered online or through agencies within larger communities.
- Encourage your clients to seek out good family therapy, hopefully with a collaboratively trained mental health professional. They need a family counselor who will work with all members of the family to help solve the problem. Or if the problem has become too extreme, a therapist who specializes in Reunification Therapy.
Keep in mind parent/child contact problems are not always battled out in a courtroom, in front of a judge. In fact, they are common problems that often find their way into the collaborative divorce process. As collaborative divorce professionals, who want our clients to be the best parents and coparents possible, we should be on the lookout for parent/child contact problems. Most importantly, we should be prepared with useful resources that will help parents recognize repair parent/child contact issues.
 Darnell, Douglas, PhD. Divorce Casualties: Understanding Parental Alienation. Second edition. Taylor Publishing Company. 2008.