In these divorce-based cases, I found myself with a choice. I could see the parent who brought the child and stay safe, or I could try to get a positive connection with the other parent as well.
Post-divorce co-parents are embroiled in a much more heavily polarized struggle than the average family is who walks in our doors. This polarity faces all professionals with the challenge of living in two worlds at the same time when those two worlds contradict each other. This is also the world the child or teenager lives in. We must start by showing everyone that we will be respectful and inclusive with both parents despite the other parent's heinous description of his or her ex-spouse.
Whether a therapist, teacher, social worker, counselor attorney or judge, we are trained to live in these two worlds whereas a young person isn't. The intensity of the feelings and world views of these divorced parents often pull us into buying in to one person's position. If we professionals can be co-opted by this intensity, imagine the effect it has on a child or a teen who thrives on drama.
The heart of our professional role is to be the one party in this divorce situation who helps everyone see that more than one world view can simultaneously co-exist. Both parents can believe that they were the better parent in the marriage and have evidence to prove it. This level of ambiguity, though, causes serious anxiety in most children and teens. The obvious way for them to resolve this ambiguous source of anxiety is to side with one parent. Then the world becomes understandable.
There is another option, though. Whether we, as the professional, were brought in to the case by the court, referred to for therapy or thrust into the family because the child is in our school, there's something we can do to immediately help the child. We can make them a deal. We can ask them to allow us to take their place in the middle. Once we've heard their concerns we can offer to help solve the problems that they are continuing to attempt to solve unsuccessfully.
We can explain that parents are more likely to accept criticism from a professional than they are from their child. We can further point out that this is an activity that we do routinely and, in fact, get paid to do. The child or teen is doing it pro bono and getting no appreciation. Most importantly, if something we say or do antagonizes a parent, we don't have to go home with that parent. It's remarkable how many children and teens this makes sense to.
If he or she agrees to the deal, we shake hands on it. We can ask them to keep us informed of situations that he or she would ordinarily jump in the middle of so that we can intervene in it instead. Once we're in the middle in their place we can work to make it so that there is no middle by negotiating, intervening and generally helping support a set of adult interactions between parents. These parents are often operating outside of their own conscious control due to the emotional intensity of divorce and the dramatic changes it causes in their lives. Once helped to move in a new direction they usually feel better and continue on down this new path on their own.