By Barry Bricklin, Ph.D.
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.