When Your Child Visits a Counselor
When a coParent’s child has been through an experience that needs counseling, there is some helpful advice to keep in mind.
One of the biggest mistakes worried coParents make is to take the child or children to a counselor without the other parent knowing about it. They usually eventually find out. Along with that, avoid trying to get any counselor to take your side against the other parent. Many counselors naturally avoid taking sides, but some slip into it – they get “hooked.” While it may feel good for a while to the parent whose “side” they get on, these counselors often lose respect and credibility in the eyes of their colleagues and the court when they do this.
Avoid telling your children what to say to the counselor. The issue of children being “coached” comes up a lot in family courts. Most of the time they haven’t been purposely coached to say anything, but even your innocent conversations about the counseling could be interpreted as coaching.
For example, there was a mother who “prepared” her daughter for seeing her father at a visitation center? She told her 4-year-old daughter: “Now remember, if you ever feel frightened of your father during the visit, make sure to tell the visitation lady [the professional visitation supervisor].” That set up the daughter to feel nervous around her father for no reason, and the mother was caught later in her deposition, as she tried to explain why their daughter was nervous on the second supervised visit but not the first (when she gave no instructions and didn’t even tell the child where she was going).
Another example: “Make sure to tell the counselor the truth!” When a parent says that, the child no longer feels allowed to be talking about how he or she feels. Instead, he or she tries to figure out your view of “the truth.” The child may feel like a soldier walking into battle hoping that they shoot straight. What a burden. Children given this instruction by a parent usually feel like they have to guess what that parent’s version of the truth is, and then to parrot that to the counselor – so the counselor will tell the parent that he or she “told the truth.” This is also often discovered.
For example, I’ve seen counselor’s reports that say: “And the child walked in stiffly, quickly saying complaints about the other parent that sounded just like what I had read in the father’s declaration. Then the child relaxed, as if he had completed an assignment given to him just before the session.” This parent will be accused of coaching the child, even though the parent may not have intended to have that effect at all.
Also, avoid grilling them about what they said in the counseling session. “So, did you tell the counselor your concerns about your father?” It’s better to just leave well enough alone. If the child wants to talk about the counseling session, you can be open and supportive, but otherwise, don’t ask. And don’t be directive about what should have been said or not said.
How you act about getting and using a counselor can be very alienating to your child. And, depending on the experience and ethics of the counselor you get, their own behavior may further the alienation. Counselors can have a powerful influence over children and vulnerable parents. Make sure you work with one who is very experienced at not getting emotionally “hooked” in high-conflict family court cases.