Friday, July 14, 2017
In some instances of damaged parent-child relationships following divorce, parents and children only have contact in supervised visits or in therapeutic sessions. In most cases, the stated goal is to repair the relationship efficiently and for the parent and child to resume regular contact outside of a professional setting within a reasonable time. There are situations, however, that drag on for protracted periods, sometimes extending to years of therapy and/or supervised contact. In more than one instance in my experience, children have spent more than half their life relating to a parent exclusively in a professional setting.
When progress finally occurs in these cases and the goal of contact outside the therapist’s office is discussed, a new problem occasionally emerges: family members have learned to relate positively within the confines of a professional setting and are so used to doing so that they resist venturing out. A teen who had been in various therapeutic settings for six years with the rejected parent struggled to find words to express this dilemma. After mangling various terms, the teen arrived upon a wonderfully insightful description: “We’re supervisionalized.” Like prisoners and mental health patients who become so institutionalized after long confinement that they don’t know how to function outside the confines of the institution, this teen was pointing out that family members didn’t know how to be in relation to one another outside the confines of a professional setting – and were frightened at the possibility of doing so. Just as prisoners and inpatients may need life-skills training and coaching before they re-enter the world to avoid recidivism or relapse, so these family members needed further education (and occasionally, a gentle shove).
In my experience, two factors in the current legal-mental health effort to help these families can contribute to the problem. The one I see most often occurs when courts over-rely upon progress in therapy and the treating professionals’ recommendations to determine if, when and at what pace regular contact will resume. Such over-reliance upon the treating professional’s opinions can over-burden the therapeutic effort as family members see each session as an opportunity to plead their case as to why they should or should not have contact. In effect, the therapist’s office becomes an extension of the court room. It also puts therapists in a bind: making a recommendation to a court that counters what one or more family members want strains, may even end, the therapeutic working relationship. So...many therapists in this situation do what might be understandably expected to protect their therapeutic relationship: they keep their opinions to themselves (in the name of being neutral) and let the therapy drag on. It is oftentimes more effective for the court to retain authority over parenting time and to charge the therapist with the task of helping the family make the plan work – rather than asking the therapist to determine the plan.
A second problem occurs when therapists take a one-sided advocacy role, either for or against resumption of contact. On countless occasions I have heard children’s therapists and family therapists counsel against contact outside of a therapeutic setting because the children feel “uncomfortable,” that contact should only resume when the children are comfortable doing so. But would these same therapists encourage parents to hold their children back from attending school because the children are uncomfortable about going the first day? Or that parents should forgo their children’s scheduled vaccinations or needed medical treatment because the children are uncomfortable going to the doctor’s office?
And when therapists advocate strongly for a parent who wants to resume outside contact, they may find that doing so increases the other family members’ resistance rather than persuading them to concede. Indeed, the teen referenced at the beginning of this post recalled that previous pressure to spend time with the rejected parent outside of supervised visitation only increased their resistance to doing so: “I wasn’t about to give in and lose the war.”
In either instance, the advocating therapist may contribute to supervisionalized family members rather than helping them move on.