Don't Undermine the Other Parent
By Bob Derber
Children are often drawn into parental disputes. One parent may speak poorly of the other parent in front of the children. It can be subtle and unintended, i.e., when a parent ‘apologizes’ to the child for restrictions imposed at the other parent’s home. In all events, speaking negatively about the other parent is detrimental to the child, and in the extreme, is a recognized form of child abuse.
Divorce and separation are difficult for children of every age. Parents and family define their world and represent love and safety. Even older children who prefer to spend more time with friends than parents need to process issues that surround separation. Some schools recognize these difficulties and offer group therapy for children experiencing divorce.
Child psychologists recognize how detrimental ‘negative talk’ about the other parent is to a child. Court custodial orders typically include that the parents will 1) be civil and respectful in front the children, 2) not speak negatively about the other parent, and 3) not discuss Family Court matters in front of or with the children. Co-parenting is difficult, and particularly so when a parent does not respect these orders.
Involving a child therapist can help even if your child exhibits no troubling conduct. Your children must not only process the breakup of the home, but also the parental discord and the confusion it creates. You may think your child is doing fine, that therapy is not necessary. You could be right. But when your child’s mental health is at stake, you want to be sure. I see situations where a child performs exceptionally at school, only to learn later that the academic focus was a way for the child to escape an unhealthy home environment.
Perhaps your child has become hostile toward you. This can occur at any age. In one matter, the offending parent ‘convinced’ their toddler that ‘timeouts’ given by the other parent was evidence the parent did not ‘love’ the child. The child refused to follow parental requests and kept an unusual distance from the non-offending parent. With such extremes, therapy may include help to identify and neutralize such conduct. We often call this ‘parental alienation.’
Parental alienation is a controversial topic even among therapists. The anxiety it creates in the child is real. Psychologists have tools to identify and combat the impact of alienating conduct. They often involve the parents in addressing matters. Therapists can also help identify for the court the presence and impact of alienating conduct, so that a judge may modify custodial orders to mitigate the stress.
In my practice, I look to therapists for guidance. I often ask the court to refer the matter to Family Court Services (FCS), who are trained court-staff professionals who can review matters and make recommendations to the judge. Our judges trust FCS staff and appreciate the neutral voice in the matter. This is a one-time per year free service and perhaps you used it to reach a custodial agreement in the past. FCS staff may interview the child, a child’s therapist or school counselors to get a better understanding before they venture a recommendation. Family Court Services staff are all dedicated, conscientious professionals who bring thoughtful analysis to the table.
If matters require, you may ask a court to appoint a private therapist to evaluate the offending parent or to make custodial recommendations after an intensive study of the situation. These orders are rare and the cost of evaluation is expensive. Be careful, if you make such a request, that you have strong evidence of offensive conduct. As well, FCS staff might make such a recommendation after reviewing your situation.
From the Bench
By Judge Marigonda
Children are our greatest asset. They are our future. Your judges are trained to craft orders to first assure their health and safety and to foster positive parenting. Do not take such orders lightly. We also appreciate the need for a safe place for a child to share his or her concerns. Therapeutic input is always welcome and helpful.
Have your questions answered by an attorney and a judge. Send them to [email protected]
Bob Derber is a local attorney practicing family law. He served as a State appointed Guardian ad Litem in high conflict matters in the State of Utah before returning to his home in Santa Cruz four years ago. Your situation may differ and the above is not intended to be legal advice to you in your own custodial matters. Be sure to consult with your family law attorney as appropriate if you need help in this area. Have questions for him to answer? Send them to [email protected]