Family Law

Why You Should Consider Talking to a Children's Therapist Before You File for Divorce

By Amy Castillo, J.D., University of Minnesota School of Law
Although divorce is a profoundly painful event for you and your spouse, it’s exponentially harder for your kids, who just want stability. Before you even make the decision to hire a lawyer and file for divorce, it may be in your children’s best interests to give them the opportunity to talk to a therapist.

If you have very young children who aren’t old enough to express themselves, then it’s unlikely that a therapist will be able to help them. But older children—meaning, children old enough to explain what they’re feeling—may need a safe space to talk about what they're going through.

When it comes to divorce with children, most kids feel that they’ve been put in the middle. They love both of their parents and don’t want to “take sides” against either. They may also fear being separated from siblings and other family members they love. By taking them to a therapist before divorce is even on the table, kids can tell a therapist how they really feel about each parent and about their family dynamics. A therapist can make them feel more comfortable and can get at the heart about what is in the children’s best interests if their parents divorce. If child abuse is suspected, the therapist may be able to suss that out through a careful and non-leading discussion. Finally, the counselor may also be able, over time, to prepare children for the eventuality of life after divorce.

Therapists who work with children use different techniques to have meaningful conversations. Children may not trust a stranger at first, so counselors need to build trust. Some use “play therapy,” which is a form of therapy where younger children are given toys and encouraged to play with them while answering a therapist’s questions. As they relax and play, they are more apt to discuss their family with the therapist. Older children may just have a conversation with the counselor, but the counselor will take care to ease into the topic of family dynamics rather than having the more straightforward conversation expected of an adult.

A Consideration

Before taking your children to a therapist, make sure the counselor is fully qualified and licensed by the governing body in your state. You should also make sure that the counselor has experience working with children, and more specifically with the population of children who, whether they know it yet or not, are going to be coping with their parents’ divorce. Many attorneys can make recommendations about children’s therapists they’ve recommended and worked with in the past.

Interviews With the Judge

If your case goes to trial, the judge may or may not wish to talk to your children, individually or together, in the judge’s private chambers. This is called an “in camera interview.” The only people in the judge’s chambers are the judge, the court reporter (who will supply a transcript of the interview to both spouses), and the child or children. Sometimes attorneys are also allowed to attend an in camera interview.

An in camera interview is an opportunity for children to tell the judge, in private, how they feel about each parent, where they’d like to live and go to school, and what their custodial preference is. Parents are not allowed to attend an in camera interview, because their presence inhibits children and makes them feel like they’re taking sides, so they’re less likely to be candid with the judge.

Having spent time talking to a therapist before the divorce is very helpful to children if the worst happens and the divorce case goes to trial. Talking to a therapist gives them practice in expressing their feelings to relative strangers, and should enable them to be honest with the judge about what they want. This, in turn, helps the judge decide what kind of custody arrangement is in the children’s best interests.

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