I notice a common theme among the parents that I work with…they are suffering from the trauma of being rejected by a child, and they are adamant about their child seeing a therapist. I don’t disagree that therapy may help their child. However, one of the biggest mistakes I see these parents make is trusting the therapist is qualified to identify that their child is being manipulated to reject them by their ex. They do not seek properly educated and experienced therapists to work with their children. Don’t beat yourself up if this is you…I made the same mistake myself.
Something that everyone understands is that there are many different areas of specialty among medical doctors. No one would go to a gynecologist if they are having chest pains, for example. What most people do NOT understand, however, is that this is also true among mental health professionals.
There are many different forms of therapy – psychoanalytic, humanistic-existential, cognitive-behavioral, family systems, post-modern. Expecting a therapist to understand all of them is not realistic. Therefore, it is critical that you qualify the therapist working with their child to ensure that the therapy is achieving the results that you want for your child without turning them into a psychological battleground.
Now, I do understand that by the time parents are seeking help from a therapist for their children, things are pretty dire. Not only is our children’s behavior out of control, but we can often see the amount of pain they are in. We are also sometimes quite traumatized by the whole experience ourselves. I get it! The last thing we consider is interviewing a therapist. We just want answers, and we want them now! That’s why I’m writing this post…to take all the guess-work out of it for you, and hopefully reduce the overwhelm you already feel.
What to Ask When Qualifying a Therapist
So, how exactly do you qualify a therapist? Well, the following is a great list of questions you can start with:
- What is your education?
- Are you licensed?
- What professional organizations do you belong to?
- How many years have you been practicing?
- Do you have any special certification or training in trauma therapy, and more specifically attachment trauma? When did you receive this training?
- How much experience do you have working with trauma and abuse?
- Do you understand and treat dissociative disorders?
- Do you understand and treat cluster B personality disorders?
- How do you determine if a child is being alienated versus being estranged?
- What type (or model) of therapy do you practice? What does it involve and how will it solve the problems with my relationship with my child?
- Do you work with many children, particularly those exposed to high-conflict divorce? How many have been emotionally cut-off from one or both parents? How many were able to overcome this and re-establish a loving bond with their parent(s)?
- Will you work with both the parent and child together?
- Do you take treatment notes?
- Do you have an advisor or someone you consult with regularly?
- Have you completed your own course of therapy?
Getting the “Right” Answers
Asking the questions is one thing, but it is equally important to know what the answers should be. The following is a list of the types of answers you want to receive. If you talk to a therapist who is not willing to answer the above questions, it’s a pretty good indication that they are not qualified, or at the very least, not willing to work opening with you and your child, which really isn’t much better.
- Educational background differs based on the type of therapist you are seeking. For example, the therapist may be a clinical social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist.
- If the therapist is licensed, it means they have passed minimum standards of competency. This includes obtaining a degree (validation of their education from question #1), completing a practicum in which they have worked a minimum number of hours with clients, and passing a written exam created by the licensing body. Families experiencing high-conflict divorce present some pretty complicated problems. Therefore, I would not want my child seeing anyone who isn’t licensed. They just don’t have enough experience.
- Professional Organizations
- Most therapists who are serious about what they do belong to a professional organization. It shows a pride in the work that they do, and allows them to connect with other like-minded professionals. These organizations also offer their members additional training resources. If the therapist rattles off a bunch of names and letters you don’t understand, it’s a pretty good sign. Take note of the organizations and check out their websites.
- They should, as a minimum, belong to their local professional chapter, such as the NASW for social workers, the APA for psychologists, and the AMA if they are a psychiatrist.
- Belonging to a professional trauma organization is a bonus. A few include ISSTD (International Society for the Study of Stress and Dissociation), ISTSS (International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies), and the American Professional Psychology Division 56 (Division of Trauma Therapy).
- Years of Practice
- There is no real “right” answer here…the longer, the better.
- Trauma Training
- You want this answer to be a “yes” of some sort, shape or form. This may include an internship in a trauma treatment center, or specialized supervision by an experienced trauma therapist. The professional organizations mentioned above also offer specialized courses and certifications.
- Trauma therapy is a specialty area that requires special training. Don’t accept “no” for an answer here…or worse, someone who thinks they can treat trauma simply because they have experienced it themselves.
- Trauma Experience
- There is no real “right” answer here either…the longer, the better.
- Dissociative Disorders
- Dissociative disorders involve problems with memory, identity, emotion, perception, behavior and sense of self. They can include a feeling of detachment or amnesia, and go hand-in-hand with trauma.
- If the therapist has never been trained to work with dissociative disorders, there is a good chance that they won’t recognize them when they see them. This significantly increases the chances of a misdiagnosis.
- Cluster B Personality Disorders
- People who have a cluster B personality disorder typically have problems with impulse control and emotional regulation. The four cluster B disorders include antisocial, histrionic, borderline and narcissistic personality disorder.
- Alienating parents typically display strong cluster B personality traits. Therefore, having a therapist who understands these disorders and their effect on family members would be a definite asset when working with your child. If the therapist is unable to identify these types of personality traits, they will be blind to your ex’s behavior, which is an essential building block to a correct diagnosis for your child.
- Alienated vs. Estranged
- There are several factors that can be used to tell the difference. Alienated children typically have frivolous reasons for rejecting a parent and are unable to describe details of any alleged abuse. They often parrot the same words over and over, repeating what they’ve been instructed to say by the alienating parent. They also use age-inappropriate language. The therapist you choose should be able to describe these indicators, in addition to others.
- Type of Therapy
- Family systems therapy is the appropriate therapy model for cases involving “parental alienation”. For a more lengthy description of the other therapy models and the impact they may have on your child, I suggest you refer to Dr. Craig Childress’ article On Unicorns, the Tooth Fairy and Reunification Therapy.
- Working With Children
- I don’t think I need to explain the importance of the therapist having experience in working with children. You’ll know if you’re happy with the answers to the other questions here, as well.
- How They Work With the Family
- Treating the child alone is NOT appropriate in cases of “parental alienation”. See section on “Other Important Considerations” below.
- Treatment Notes
- This is important for documentation. I would hope most therapists take notes, as I know they are legally required to in at least some states.
- Only you can determine if you’re comfortable with the answers you receive here. However, one thing you’ll want to consider is if you want to be able to use the therapist’s notes in court and how their confidentiality agreement impacts that.
- Advisors are always a good thing…if the therapist is working as a lone wolf, you may want to look for someone else.
- Personal Therapy
- This question can be totally awkward to ask, but is completely fair to ask…and don’t be put-off if the answer to this one is “yes”.
- Susan Pease Bannitt articulates this perfectly in her blog post Five Questions You Should Ask Your New Trauma Therapist:
“But being a psychotherapist working with traumatized people is an incredibly challenging calling. It’s easy to make mistakes, mostly unconscious or ignorant ones. So it is important that the therapist has had enough of their own therapy to understand how their own mind defends itself and operates unconsciously so that they can work well with other minds. This is a long and arduous task requiring many hours of training and work over a period of years…Chances are good that somebody in therapy for 10 years will be a much better therapist than someone who went to treatment for six months and called it ‘good’.”
If you’d like to learn strategies to help you and your child cope with “parental alienation”, schedule your free strategy session. I will help you identify what your next best move is.
Another Useful Tool
The Attachment Counter-Transference Scale written by Dr. Craig Childress is another useful (but somewhat cut-throat) tool for choosing the “right” therapist for your child. It is laid out in worksheet form for the therapist to complete, and assigns points based on the amount of love they received as a child, their perception of the importance of parent-child relationships, and their level of knowledge on attachment, family systems, and personality pathology. All scoring is also interpreted on the worksheet.
Although this proves to be a useful tool, I would caution anyone against just giving this form to a therapist and asking them to fill it out directly. Regardless, it helps to identify the qualities you should be looking for in a therapist that will be working with your child. It also does a great job of outlining relevant resources for the recommended different areas of knowledge.
Educating the Therapist
I’d like to delve into the subject of educating your therapist because I know there are a lot of parents out there who really don’t have a choice as to who their child goes to. If this is you, I first want to say that there really is no point in asking the questions I presented above. The whole point of those questions is to ask them BEFORE hiring the therapist in the first place. Instead, you’re going to have to work with the therapist you’ve been dealt in the hopes that they will reveal what is truly happening and help your family.
I literally spent hours scouring the internet for countless different keywords in an attempt to offer you the best advice on how to approach the delicate subject of educating your therapist. The end result…I came up pretty much empty-handed, which really didn’t surprise me. Let me tell you why and offer my own personal opinion on this one.
My thought is that it really is best NOT to try to educate your therapist…and I’m guessing this is exactly why there are no resources online on the subject. I do have an engineering background, and speaking from the professional’s point of view, no one likes to be told how to do their job by someone who hasn’t taken any formal education in their field. It can also be interpreted as being insulting and distrustful. Worse yet is when the client (ie: us parents) start using psycho-babble we’ve picked up from watching the million YouTube videos on “parental alienation”.
Although I wouldn’t recommend supplying your therapist with a plethora of educational articles, it is totally acceptable to express your concerns to her/him. I would hope that s/he would be interested in everyone’s perspective on what may be contributing to your child’s assertion not to spend time with you. Also, approaching the therapist from a place of curiosity and asking them questions that will lead them to research the topic themselves is a gentle way of nudging them in the right direction. I do caution you, however, not to be too blatant with your questions.
Another recommendation I would make about communicating with the therapist is to avoid using the term “parental alienation”. Honestly, I don’t like using the term myself for a couple of reasons. One reason is because there is so much controversy surrounding it…with the APA, inside the courtroom, and even online. The term also sounds very black and white and accusatory to me…like one parent is all at fault (all bad) for the child’s behavior and the other is just a victim (all good). Hmmm…sound familiar? Kinda perpetuates the splitting-type mentality of the pathogenic parent, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid…am I right?
Seriously though, telling a therapist that you’re being “alienated” from your child can be interpreted as you avoiding any personal responsibility for your own possible poor parenting habits by blaming your ex for the consequences of your actions. This also feeds the false narrative that your child and ex have likely already established with the therapist…that you are not capable of being self-reflective.
I know what you’re thinking…”what the hell am I supposed to say then?” Dr. Childress sums this one up best in his article Ju Jitsu Parenting: Fighting Back From the Down Position in which he goes through a mock conversation with a therapist.
In his article, he talks about taking control of the language to define the family dynamic without using the term “alienation”. For example, you may want to express your concerns about once being very close to your child, and now, since your divorce, your child is refusing to spend time with you. Acknowledge any false allegations, and tell the therapist that you don’t understand why your child would say those things about you, and you are concerned about where he may have gotten the idea in the first place. If your ex refuses to co-parent, tell the therapist that this concerns you, and explain the impact of trying to parent with them.
Do NOT start complaining! Everything you say to the therapist must come from a place of concern. If the therapist tries to label the behavior as “alienation”, do not accept that explanation. As Dr. Childress directs in his article, what you could say is, “Labeling it like that is not something I think about” or you could say “if you think so. I just want a loving relationship with my son like I used to have.”
At the end of the day, it’s always best to stick to the facts and describe the situation based on your observations and always express them from a place of concern. This sounds easy, but just speaking from experience here…do not confuse concern with desperation. Guaranteed, your ex presents very well…cool, calm, collected and articulate. If you appear desperate, it will not help your case.
I want to take a moment to discuss “reunification therapy”. Please proceed with extreme caution if you encounter a therapist who proclaims to practice “reunification therapy” because as of the date of this post, there is NO model that has ever been accepted as “reunification therapy”. What does this mean? It essentially means that therapists can do whatever they want and present it as “reunification therapy”.
In Dr. Childress’ article On Unicorns, the Tooth Fairy and Reunification Therapy mentioned above, he writes:
“…there is NO model of therapy that has ever been proposed for what constitutes “reunification therapy,” meaning that therapists can essentially do whatever they want under the label of “reunification therapy.” If therapists wish to describe the type of therapy they are conducting, they should use actual and established models of psychotherapy rather than vague and imprecise descriptive terms that do not increase understanding but that give the appearance of credibility without the substance of credibility. The construct of “reunification therapy” is a haven, and a cover, for professional ignorance and incompetence.”
He also goes on to say that “The construct of “reunification therapy” is a mythical entity of no defined substance.”
I’ll be honest…this scares me…a LOT!
As a mom who has experienced alienation both from a parent’s and a step-parent’s perspective, this is shocking to me. When my son eventually emotionally cut-off from me, I was devastated, and I’m sure suffering from PTSD at the time. I would have accepted that any therapist professing to do “reunification therapy” actually knew what they were doing. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Rather, I’ve actually seen just the opposite. A therapist that worked directly with my family and failed to recognize that my son was being manipulated by his father and step-mother had actually gone on to offer “reunification therapy”!
Before you throw in the towel and give up all hope, I do want to say that there are reunification programs that have been successful in reuniting rejected parents with their children. Notice the difference here…they are “programs” or “workshops”…not therapy.
If you are seeking a reunification program, please, please, please do your homework! Make sure you know how many families the therapist has worked with, how many they have successfully reunited, and what their pre- and post-treatment plans are. Even better yet, get testimonials if you can. This one may a bit touchy because most families would just prefer to remain anonymous.
If you’d like to learn more about what reunification options are available and what might be right for your family, register for our FREE “Pathways to Reunification” mini course delivered via email.
Other Important Considerations
It seems that a lot of alienated parents seeking therapy for their children ultimately want to improve their relationship with their kids. This seems reasonable; however, are you also seeking to attend the sessions with your child? If not, you may want to reconsider.
Your child attending therapy alone to improve your relationship with her/him is akin to one spouse going to couples’ therapy to improve their marital relationship. It just simply doesn’t work!
The other obstacle that must be overcome is if the child is living with the alienating parent. As long as your child is living with their other parent and s/he is engaging in alienating behavior, any progress made in the therapy sessions with your child may be negated. The best results are always achieved if there is a protective separation.
Should I Attend Therapy With My Ex?
One last topic I want to discuss is the option of attending therapy with your (abusive) ex. I have had clients who have been pushed into attending therapy with their ex by therapists in an effort to improve the relationship they have with their child.
This makes absolutely no sense to me! I realize that I am not a therapist; however, how can putting someone in a room with their abuser be anything but traumatic?
In my experience, “alienating” parents have strong cluster B personality traits. They do not recognize they are doing anything wrong. Their behavior will not change…at least not without extensive therapy themselves, which they often refuse to acknowledge they need!
Without a desire to change, no change happens. If no change happens, these parents continue to treat you and your children in the same way, thus there is no improvement in your relationship with your children.
This also brings me back to the analogy I made above…going to therapy with your ex to improve your relationship with your child is akin to going to couples’ therapy with your arrogant boss to improve your relationship with your spouse…it just doesn’t make any sense!
My recommendation…don’t put yourself through that. You’ve been through enough! However, if you feel compelled to attend therapy with your ex, please carefully consider the outcome you want to achieve and “check in” frequently to ensure you are, in fact, achieving those results.
If you’d like to learn strategies to help you and your child cope with “parental alienation”, schedule your free strategy session. I will help you identify what your next best move is.
Dr. Craig Childress, Psy.D, On Unicorns, the Tooth Fairy and Reunification Therapy, July 22, 2014
Dr. Craig Childress, Psy.D, Ju-jitsu Parenting: Fighting Back from the Down Position, 2013
Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW RYT, Five Questions You Should Ask Your New Trauma Therapist, February 13, 2004
Surviving Therapist Abuse (Kristi), Questions to Ask a Prospective Therapist, November 27, 2014
Brainline (National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affair), 7 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a PTSD Therapist, August 14, 2015
American Psychiatric Association, What Are Dissociative Disorders?, August 2018
Very Well Mind (Matthew Tull, PhD), Questions to Ask a Therapist, July 9, 2018
MentalHelp.net (Simone Hoermann, PhD, Corinne Zupanick, PsyD, and Mark Dombeck, PhD), DSM-5: The Ten Personality Disorders: Cluster B
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