In Australia, 19.3% of families with children are sole-parented (Australian Institute of Family Studies, AIFS). Parental separation/divorce has a significant impact on children. In the short term, this includes the initial trauma of separation and adjusting to the changed living arrangements (Australian Institute of Family Studies 1991, Family Matters, no.30.). Additionally, parental separation is linked to multiple negative outcomes for children including psychological adjustment, academic performance, behavioural disorders, self-concept, and social adjustment (Seijo, Fariña, Corras, Novo & Arce, 2016).
It is not surprising, then, that many parents at some point may call upon the support of a clinical psychologist or other therapist to support their child and family. Often, the estranged parent whole-heartedly supports this involvement. In a small number of cases, the estranged parent, for a variety of reasons, objects to their child attending a psychologist with the other parent. If you’re in that boat, this post is for you, and will hopefully reassure you and put your mind at ease, including clarifying the ethical and legal safeguards the psychologist operates within.
First, the good news – actually, it’s all good news. Involving a psychologist for a brief period in the life of your child is an awesome way to check that all their developmental, social, and emotional needs are being met, across all homes, and across contact with all caregivers. Just because it is your ex that is taking your child to that appointment does not in any way mean that the psychologist will form, or has any interest in forming, an adverse opinion of you and/or a favourable opinion of your ex. Rather, the psychologist will use their clinical skills, knowledge, tools, and assessments to:
- collect adequate information to inform their opinion and treatment plan, including (where appropriate) seeking the attending parent’s permission to contact the child’s school/daycare, AND – of course – the other parent.
- build an informed opinion on the developmental, social and emotional needs of your child.
- look for where and how these needs are being met; and any areas where your child could do with more support or development.
- draw upon up-to-date research and best practice guidelines on child attachment, development, family dynamics, the impact of family violence and abuse, mental health of family members, and children’s views to design interventions that support the healthy development of your child.
- cease their service if no treatment is found to be warranted.
I’m worried it will somehow result in me having reduced time with my kids.
The Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006 states explicitly that each parent retains parental responsibility, which is not affected by changes in the relationship (261C), and therefore the court must now apply the presumption that it is in the best interest of the child for the parents to have equal shared parental responsibility”. Exceptions to this are made when there are grounds to believe there has been abuse of a child or family violence. The Act ensures that the best interests of children are met by ensuring that children have the benefit of both parents to the maximum extent consistent with the best interest of the child, ensuring that children receive adequate and proper parenting to help them achieve their full potential, and ensuring that parents fulfill their duties and responsibilities (for more detail, see here)
To put this in simple terms, the psychologist will be looking for every opportunity to support the healthy development of your child, including a healthy relationship with both parents. If you are (rightly or wrongly) concerned that your ex is attempting to alienate you, or build an unfair and/or untrue case against you, your ex will not find a complicit co-conspirator in a psychologist. Whatever the circumstance, the psychologist your ex has engaged may just have become one of your child’s most useful allies.
What if my ex takes my kid to a psych without me knowing, and therefore I have no chance to consent or not? Should the psychologist seek consent of both parents before initially meeting the child?
There is no legal or ethical imperative on the psychologist to contact the other parent before commencing a therapeutic relationship with the child. The 2006 Act states:
“To avoid doubt, this section [65DAC(4)] does not require any other person to establish, before acting on a decision about the child communicated by one of these persons, that the decision has been made jointly.”
Thus when your ex makes the appointment, it is appropriate for the psychologist to assume that the contacting parent has the right to make that decision, and/or that it is a joint decision. However, at the first appointment the psychologist is ethically obliged to establish if joint consent has been obtained, and will expect to see a copy of any Parenting Orders. The ethical guidelines specify:
“In circumstances where the young person’s parents are separated, the psychologist clarifies with the client-parent and the young person at the outset of a psychological service the level of any potential involvement of the other parent and what, if any, information is to be disclosed to the other parent, and the possible consequences on non-disclosure” (s8.1, underlined emphasis added)
So right from the get-go, the psychologist will be talking with the other parent about involving you in therapy – and the risks and benefits associated with it. Anecdotally, in the clear majority of families I have worked with, this has meant that my very first action after the initial appointment(s) has been to contact the other parent and invite them to participate.
What if I contact the psychologist to express that this is not a joint decision, and I do not consent to treatment of my child?
First, I would remind you of the information above – there is much to gain in ensuring the healthy development of your child by engaging a psychologist. Here are some concerns that I have heard in the past:
- My ex will give a false account about me
- I don’t think my child needs treatment
- My ex is seeking to alienate me
- It’s the behaviour of my ex that is causing the “problems”
- My ex is “coaching” the kids in what to say
- My ex is “doctor shopping”
These concerns are all understandable, depending on the context of the separation between you and your ex. Be assured however, that the psychologist will also be checking in against each of these hypotheses among others. If your child’s psychologist identifies that your ex is intentionally or unintentionally seeking to paint you in a poor light, alienate you, or in other way discredit you, this will be noted and addressed with that parent. If it is parental behaviours of the ex that are “causative”, then the psychologist will assist that parent to use different skills and behaviours. If the psychologist assesses that your child does not need treatment, treatment will cease.
Indeed, if you are interested in the healthy development of your child – and the overwhelming majority of parents are – then you have nothing to fear, and a lot for your child to gain, from your child seeing the psychologist your ex has chosen. Remember, the psychologist is interested in assisting, as much as possible, your child to have a healthy relationship with BOTH of you. This may be the very opportunity you’ve needed. You might even want to thank your ex.
I still object. Should the psychologist cancel my child’s appointment if I don’t give consent?
There is no legal requirement, unless stipulated in your Parenting Orders, that both parents should consent to treatment, and thus treatment can proceed with consent of only one parent. However, ethically the psychologist is always guided by what is in the best interests of the child – so the psychologist must determine the risks and benefits of proceeding without consent. If the risks to the child outweigh the benefits, the contacting parent will be advised that treatment cannot go ahead unless issues of consent are resolved. An example of the benefits outweighing the risks would be if the psychologist has reason to believe the child may otherwise be at risk, and thus has a duty of care to your child. Where the appropriate direction is not clear, the psychologist may conduct an initial appointment with the contacting parent without the child present to determine whether or not it would be in the child’s best interests to continue therapy without joint consent.
There are some situations where the psychologist may not even be able to disclose to you whether or not your child even has an appointment:
“In the absence of consent by the client-parent and the young person for disclosure of information to the other parent and in the event that the other parent seeks information about the psychological service provided to the young person, psychologists have a duty to protect the confidentiality of the young person, which includes refraining from acknowledging whether or not a psychological service has been provided.” (APS Ethical guidelines for working with young people, s8.2, underlined emphasis added)
Well what does all that mean for me then?
Okay, some key take-home points:
- If your ex decides to take your child to a psychologist, in most circumstances this should be done with joint consent. However, depending on the Parenting Orders, or the other parent’s concerns about risk to your child, they may do so with single-parent consent.
- The psychologist will be working for the best interests of the child at all times, and is guided by a clear Code of Ethics and associated Guidelines.
- In some circumstances the psychologist cannot cancel or cease treatment at your request, and may not even be permitted to confirm or deny appointments have been made. However you can politely advise the psychologist that you do not consent, and the psychologist will discuss this with the client-parent, and incorporate this information in their overall assessment.
- You may wish to discuss with your lawyer the legal implications of advising your non-consent.
- Your ongoing involvement will be discussed with the attending parent in the intake appointment(s).
- If the child lives, spends time, or communicates with you, and the attending parent and child do not consent to disclosing information to you, the psychologist will discuss the possible implications of this with the attending parent and child (if appropriate) prior to agreeing to provide a psychological service, and may indeed decide not to provide treatment when disclosure to you is not agreed to. There are many factors the psychologist will consider in making this decision, and paramount in all of those is what is in the best interests of your child.
In summary, the involvement of a psychologist in the life of a child is guided at all times by what is in the best interests of that child. Assuming this is your base position too (of course it is), then you and the psychologist are already on the same team, and they will very much value and rely upon your willingness to participate in the process. Your child stands to benefit a great deal when both parents can co-parent from the same page even if the only remaining bond between you is the child you’re both raising.
The information contained in this article is general in nature. You should speak with your psychologist and/or lawyer for advice for your own situation.
For ideas on how to speak to your child about seeking a psychologist see my last post.