Family Therapy: Helping Kids Cope With Divorce

Counseling can help children process the breakup, provided the sessions stay out of court.

Carl Grody
Carl Grody

Parents often seek counseling for their children during a separation or divorce.

It’s a good idea, of course. Kids feel torn loyalties when parents break up, despite everyone’s best intentions, and even well-meaning moms and dads sometimes put kids in the middle of their feuding. That’s when children need a safe place to say whatever’s on their mind without worrying about what other people think (especially their parents). They need to work through conflicted feelings without looking like they’re siding with either parent.

But sometimes, parents want a clinician to work with the kids and then testify in a custody hearing.

Of course, there’s a place for court intervention. In cases of abuse or neglect, the legal system needs to protect children. But absent any danger, studies repeatedly show that children benefit from having both parents in their lives. Everything that damages relationships between parents and their kids—and between co-parents, to be picky about it—just makes it harder for everyone to move on to the next stage of life. I’ve said it before: Kids will come through the breakup intact if parents manage to keep them out of the middle.

I specialize in family therapy. It’s important for me to build rapport and trust with as many people in the family as possible, especially the parents. I also need kids to trust that our sessions are private, safe and confidential. (In other words, what they say in a session stays there.) If they don’t trust those things are true, they won’t be able to work through the feelings they need to process.

The law doesn’t always back me up on that. In fact, our state licensing board says that parents have a right to know what their child says in therapy. If a parent asks their clinician what was said, we have to tell them.

I can’t prevent that from happening. That’s why I only take these cases if parents agree ahead of time to respect the privacy of their child’s therapy and not ask those questions, especially in a courtroom, where the information could become public.

Those parents aren’t bad people. They’re human, subject to cognitive dissonance and rationalizing just like the rest of us. And as Ted Lasso said so well during season one, “Divorce makes people do crazy things.” (If you haven’t seen Ted Lasso, go watch it. It’ll make you feel better about life in general.)

During a breakup, negative feelings can cloud parents’ vision. They might convince themselves that their ex is a bad influence, or they lash out at each other because they need to do something with their anger and pain. Again, most parents in this spot aren’t bad; they’re just wounded.

But custody battles don’t make things better. They just offer more chances for kids to feel torn between their parents. Therapy should be a place to help them process their thoughts and feelings about the breakup, not a place to pile on more stress.

Once in a while, parents ignore all that and send me a subpoena anyway. That never works out well. They pay a lot of money just to hear me say that it’s not in my scope of practice to make custody recommendations. I remind everyone that custody issues are the purview of the court and the guardian ad litem. And I advocate that kids can’t truly feel safe and open with a therapist who shares their thoughts in the open for the whole world to hear.

If you want a clinician who’ll go to court with you, you can find one. Some clinicians even specialize in that. But if you really want to help your kids, save the subpoena; hire someone who focuses on helping kids work through their feelings and maybe even works with all of you to make sense of the breakup together.

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.

This story is from the Fall 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.