Effective Therapy For Resistant High Conflict Divorcing Families (Part 2)

PROBLEM # 2           What Kind of Therapy is Best For Custody Disputants?

Q: What is the best therapy to suggest for a custody family where the parents constantly argue and undermine each other?

One would first think about a Parent Coordinator, but you would have to find one trained in psychotherapy. Further, many judges are reluctant to hand over the kind of power most Parent Coordinators demand.

Since the parents typically cannot agree on anything, and can’t work together cooperatively,  and in parental alienation cases one parent will insist the children are “terrified” to be near the other parent, they will refuse any therapy where they have to be in the same room. They will each want individual therapy, and will want the right to choose a favored therapist. The parents may honestly want therapy for the children, but what they really want for themselves is an “expert” who will believe what they say and back them up in court. All too often everyone ends up with his or her own therapist. This usually leads to a chaotic and even greater adversarial mess than existed earlier, especially if there is even the slightest amount of parental alienation in the mix. Each client tells a different story, usually convincingly, and each therapist, consciously or unconsciously, ends up advocating (to a judge in ongoing litigation) for his or her client.

THE BLUNT SCIENTIFIC TRUTH IS THAT THIS SITUATION DEMANDS FAMILY THERAPY, THE THERAPIST MUST KNOW THE PLOYS AND TRICKS TYPICAL OF HIGH-CONFLICT PARENTS, AND THE FURTHER BLUNT TRUTH IS THAT THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE TO ARRANGE. No judge would order it, high conflict parents would never accept it, and if a child is alienated he or she would scream bloody murder. And an unenlightened attorney or mental health professional will chirp in with “why should we be concerned about a family system that no longer exists.”

But this system does exist AND WILL FOREVER EXIST IN THE MINDS OF THE FAMILY MEMBERS. And since the neural circuitry was wired-in when many members were young, the neural configurations that encode family relations will remain primed to “fire” as intact circuits until they die. Note well also that every system has countless unique properties, and the members of a system will behave in ways within this system that are unlikely to occur outside of that system. There are many behaviors that will emerge (and be open to observation) only within a specific system.

The next post will provide some background on systems theory and its implications for providing therapy to court-involved, high conflict families.

Effective Therapy For Resistant High Conflict Divorcing Families (Part 1)

By Barry Bricklin, Ph.D.

This series will present dilemmas faced by professionals evaluating or providing therapy for high conflict divorcing families---including the involvement of the judge/court, why therapy fails, and effective therapy based on family systems theory and neuroscience research

PROBLEM # 1. The Parent Who Needs Therapy and Refuses to Cooperate.

Q: What should I do when a custody parent really needs therapy but refuses to do it? I always worry that the judge won’t do anything to help.

The parents in a high-conflict custody case almost always need therapeutic help. They are typically angry, hurt, vindictive, tuned-out from their parent roles, and generally exhausted and preoccupied. And they know therapy is needed—badly needed.

The problem is each thinks it’s the other parent who needs the help. And if one of the parents accepts the fact that indeed he or she needs help, that will almost always be the healthier of the two parents. It will be the parent who really needs help who will refuse to accept it.

The truth, of course, is that BOTH parents need help, especially the one who refuses it, and so do the children. We end up with a parent who wants help, one who doesn’t, and children who will usually follow the lead of the parent they favor (rightly or wrongly). It is possible that in some families it is just one (or just a few) people who need therapeutic help. This is rarely the case in high-conflict situations.

So the first problem we deal with in this series is what to do about a parent who refuses therapy. Since some judges are reluctant to force a parent into therapy, the evaluator wonders what to do. It is usually assumed that the answer to the problem is to make the pathology of the resistant parent super clear. But the problem is not that the judge fails to see the parent’s problems. While it may be that some judges are fearful of “forcing” people to do pretty much anything, the more usual answer we hear from judges is that if a person doesn’t want therapy he or she will not be helped by therapy. The answer to the problem of the resistant-to-therapy parent is that the evaluator not only has to highlight the resistant parent’s pathology, but has to inform the judge that there are ethical therapies that can be effective with resistant clients.

The best of these methods is based on research in neuroscience, and the details and theoretical base of this method will be presented in upcoming posts, along with how to present the information to a court. First, we must cover another usual problem with custody disputants who need therapy. This problem applies regardless of the degree of parental willingness to accept therapeutic help. Stay tuned for our next blog post about this.