Therapeutic justice in family cases:
The psychologist, part 7

Article By PracticeForte Advisory Affiliate Sylvia Tan

Psychologists are mostly trained in assessment and treatment of mental health issues. We undergo four years of undergrad training, two years of post-graduate studies and specialist clinical supervision before we can be registered with a registration board. Psychologists generally end up working in the hospitals, government services or schools, working with individuals with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma, phobias, etc., through talk-therapy, using evidence-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

While mental health treatment is usually what psychologists specialize in, some choose to work in the psycho-legal field of family law i.e. working with families undergoing divorce. This is because family breakdown and family conflicts are gateways for mental health issues to develop in children as well as adults. Research has found that children from families of divorce are two times more likely to develop mental health issues than children from intact families. Adults undergoing divorce extreme high levels of stress, which can develop into mental health issues, such as depression or even suicide. Hence, with their training in mental health, psychologists can play a critical role in supporting families undergoing divorce to help mitigate the devastating effect of mental health issues on families.

Psychologists, with their training in assessing and treating mental health issues, can identify “red flags” in a client’s mental well-being. Early identification of warning signs and early intervention can prevent long term mental health issues or devastating outcomes such as self-harm, suicide or even homicide in extreme cases.

Psychologists who work with kids will be able to support children with tools and skills in coping with their parents’ divorce. Without understanding of their parents’ divorce and the right support, children end up being triangulated between their parents, and this can result in chronic stress, depression, and symptoms of anxiety.

Apart from playing the role of a treating specialist, psychologists can provide consultation to parents regarding parenting issues for their children. With their training in child development, psychologists are equipped to identify what are the developmental needs of children, and therefore can provide sound advice for parents in making appropriate parenting plans for the children. Divorcing parents who are focused on making sure that their children’s developmental needs are met, will benefit from seeking consultation with a psychologist who is well-versed in divorce related issues such as overnight access for children, shared parenting, parental alienation and relocation.

Sylvia’s vision of collaborative practice

Parents should remain as parents, and they should retain their rights as parents as much as possible. To me, parents lose their parental rights when they surrender their decision-making rights to the hands of the court.  While the court has its place in helping divorcing parents make decisions for them when their conflict is intractable, parents should try to avert using the court as a resort to resolve their custody disputes, because as soon as they do that, their rights as parents will be stripped off from them once the court steps in to adjudicate the matter.

Therefore, parents who believe in preserving their autonomy and rights as parents, should direct all their energy into resolving their divorce issues outside of court through mediation as the only resort.  Mediation has been found to have much better and long-lasting outcomes for children than children who have experienced protracted and acrimonious litigation. Hence out-of-court mediation would be the ideal, if not the best solution for parents. Engaging a mediator to resolve a divorce dispute, is akin to having a bridge for two persons to reach an agreement for their divorce. To me, the mediation bridge can be strengthened with another layer of support through inputs from a psychologist. Parents feel that they need professional inputs into how they can divorce in such a way that their children will be protected and not be harmed in the process, involving psychologist in the mediation process is a very practical, logical and cost-saving process for parents.

Therefore, when parents opt for out of court mediation, I would recommend for parents to involve a psychologist in the mediation process, to act as a neutral professional to give sound parenting plan advice. This can help with any impasse in mediation, especially when parents are in disagreement about the needs of their children.  The psychologist and mediator can work hand in hand, together with the parents, helping them find workable and child-centered solutions that will be therapeutic and catered to their children’s developmental needs. This process is least stressful as parents can have their say, and parents are able to exercise their full legal rights as parents. Mediators’ partnership with a psychologist is therefore a much stronger bridge and a better way to go for a peaceful and child-centered divorce.

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