Effective Therapy For Resistant High Conflict Divorcing Families (Part 4)

By Barry Bricklin, Ph.D.

(If you haven’t read Parts 1, 2 or 3, start here)

Q: I always worry that the judge won’t do anything to help when a parent in a high conflict family refuses therapy. What should I do?

As evaluators we often must deal with the fact that in high conflict families (continual litigation, continual arguments, failed mediation, various degrees of Parental Alienation) we typically find that all participants need therapy and frequently there will be one of them, a parent, who refuses it, usually the one who needs it most. And we know, annoyingly so from prior experience, that all too many judges are unwilling to force custody litigants to accept therapy.

In a prior post, we made the assertion that the typical evaluator believes the way to deal with parents (or children) who need therapy and refuse it is to write an extra-strong report that emphasizes to the judge the pathology of the family member who needs therapeutic help and refuses it.

Our main point is that this is only part of the task. Most judges in fact do believe the parent could profit from therapy, but the typical judge also believes that people who refuse therapy will not profit from it. These judges believe that a conscious willingness to cooperate is an absolute necessity for effective therapy.

Now it is certainly true that client cooperation makes therapy much more likely to succeed. But there are other pathways to therapeutic success, pathways that do not require conscious cooperation, and are completely ethical in that they will have healthy, not unhealthy effects on the client and certainly be “in the best interests of the child(ren),” the reason they are all in court to begin with.

So the evaluator’s mission is not only to make the client pathology crystal clear to the judge  (emphasizing the continual damage to the children), but also to make the case that there are ethical therapeutic methods that can operate successfully even with those who refuse therapy.

The research bases for effective therapy for high conflict families will be addressed in the next post.

Effective Therapy For Resistant High Conflict Divorcing Families (Part 3)

By Barry Bricklin, Ph.D.

(If you haven’t read Parts 1 or 2, start here)


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


Informed court involvement is important when it comes to ordering therapy for high conflict families. What you have to explain to the judge involves an area most mental health professionals believe they fully understand, while it is unlikely the judge has ever thought about the area at all. In our opinion even mental health professionals may not fully understand the area either. It is Systems Theory thinking, and especially the unexpected implications for treatment that follow from Systems thinking.

First, some background. As we go through the day we operate within a steady parade of different systems: alone; with spouse; with children; with anyone else who may be in house; within the workplace (which may harbor several systems), after work in recreational and other social circles. Each system will automatically elicit (stimulate) a different (some slightly different, others very different) cluster of body-mind neural circuits in your brain. You will, almost literally, be a different person in each system. (I have four children. It was obvious to me even years before I was trained in my field, that I felt different, and acted differently, with each child.)

Each custody family is a unique system. Each member will act differently within that system than when part of any other system. This means the members of this family really require a special type of family therapy to be able to deal with the unique things that happen in that system. but, as said, we also know that this is impossible. (By “special type” we mean a therapy that can deal with typically non-cooperative clients. This type of therapy requires backup help from the court.)

So what to do? Family therapy is needed and will hardly ever happen. And even if it were to come about, in a high-conflict case the sessions would be chaotic and likely scare the children.

The next post continues coverage of this dilemma and the problems encountered by evaluators when dealing with judges in high conflict cases.


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

By Barry Bricklin, Ph.D.

(If you haven’t read Part 1 of this series, start here.)

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)

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

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.