It’s not new information to say that 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. Even in the most amicable, conscientious, child-focused separation, a child has a mammoth task of reconciling that the two people they love most in the world no longer love each other. Meanwhile, those two people are trying to parent whilst going through one of life’s most stressful, painful challenges. Not surprisingly then, parental separation is linked to multiple negative outcomes for children including psychological adjustment, academic performance, behavioural disorders, self-concept, and social adjustment  (that’s the bad news).
However, most kids of divorce grow up to be just fine, and 70% of risk factors are either preventable or modifiable . To mitigate this risk and guide a child’s healthy development many parents at some point may call upon the support of a clinical psychologist or other therapist to support their child and family. Ideally, this would be a shared parental decision, but sometimes it happens that one parent acts unilaterally, with the objection (or lack of awareness) of the other parent. This post is for parents who are concerned about or object to their ex taking their child to a psychologist, and will hopefully put your mind at ease by clarifying the ethical and legal safeguards the psychologist operates within.
What will the psychologist do?
Involving a psychologist for a brief or extended 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. 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 and implement interventions that support the healthy development of your child.
- cease their service if no treatment is found to be warranted or when treatment goals are met.
Is my ex allowed to take my kid to a psychologist without my consent/knowledge?
Yes, maybe. It largely depends on the terms of your separation, particularly any parenting orders. Whilst the consent and involvement of both parents is usually desirable, there is no legal or ethical imperative on the psychologist to contact the other parent before commencing a therapeutic relationship with the child. The psychologist is legally and ethically permitted to assume, prior to the first appointment, and the parent making the appointment has the authority and consent to do so.
It is reasonable to expect that the psychologist will, at the first appointment, clarify any parenting orders and parenting responsibilities, and determine whether it is legal, ethical or appropriate to continue with sole-parent consent. The psychologist must weigh the benefits and risks to your child in proceeding with sole-parent consent. Where a psychologist determines that it would not be in the best interests of the child to involve the other parent, they may legally and ethically document their reason and proceed with sole-parent consent. In this instance, under a psychologist’s ethical guidelines, they are not permitted to confirm or deny to you whether your child is a client at their practice.
“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
However, the guidelines also direct the psychologist to assess at intake the appropriateness of advising you and involving you in the therapeutic process:
“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”APS Ethical guidelines for working with young people, 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. This will often mean that the very first action after the initial appointment(s) will be to contact the other parent and invite them to participate.
I’m worried it will somehow result in me having reduced time with my kids.
Working with children in acrimonious separations is a specialised area of work, and it is reasonable to expect and request that any psychologist involved with your child’s care has training and experience in working with separated families.
It is in children’s best interests for their long-term health and well-being, including their capacity to recognize and build healthy friendships and romantic attachments, that any contact difficulties with regards to an “unfavoured parent” be satisfactorily resolved. Thus, the psychologist is obligated to look for every opportunity to support the healthy development of your child, including wherever possible 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.
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 co-parent will give a false account about me
- I don’t think my child needs treatment
- My co-parent is seeking to alienate me
- It’s the behaviour of my co-parent that is causing the “problems”
- My co-parent is “coaching” the kids in what to say
- My co-parent is “therapist shopping”
These concerns are all understandable, depending on the context of the separation between you and your co-parent. Psychologists are trained to hold multiple hypotheses about your child’s context, including what has caused and maintains your child’s (stated) presenting issue. There are many complex assessment skills your psychologist has had significant training and supervision in, they do not simply take on the perspective of the presenting client and parent (indeed, this would be most unhelpful in many cases). 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 or refer that parent to a suitably qualified colleague. 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 – of course you 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.
I still object. Should the psychologist cancel my child’s appointment if I don’t give consent?
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 your 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. However, the psychologist is unable to form this opinion without, at the very least, meeting with the parent who has scheduled the initial appointment.
Okay, any tips for me when I contact the psychologist?
Yes, I’m so glad you asked! The psychologist is well aware of their legal and ethical obligations. No matter how much they do (or don’t) like you, your co-parent, or your kids, they will not risk their reputation and their registration for your family. This means it is unlikely they are operating in a way to deliberately make your life difficult or frustrate any process. We like to help people reduce suffering – not increase it. So…
- If you have concerns, be polite when you raise them. It doesn’t help to start a conversation by accusing the psychologist of unethical, uneducated, or biased behaviour. You can be assured the psychologist will be making an assessment of YOU based on how you choose to introduce yourself – put your best foot forward and assume they want to help you and listen to you.
- A polite, brief email is likely to help the time-poor psychologist rather than an unsolicited phone-call.
- In my opinion, it is appropriate to politely check (if you’re concerned) that the psychologist has all relevant information (e.g. court orders; court reports that they have permission to read); and that they have training/experience in working with separated families.
TL/DR – What are my 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 Agreement/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 your co-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 is obligated to 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.
- For example, see Seijo, Fariña, Corras, Novo & Arce, 2016
- Bernardini, S. C., Jenkins, J. M. (2002) An overview of the risks and protectors for children of separation and divorce. Presentation to Family, Children and Youth Section Department of Justice, Canada