Dr. Silverman is an award winning Clinical and Forensic Psychologist. Helping adults, families, and children. Visit us in Miami, Boca Raton, and Aventura. Learn about the latest trends and topics within clinical psychology and forensic psychology from Dr. Wade Silverman as he shares his insights discoveries.
the trend in family court towards recognizing equal parent participation in
childrearing, both in this state and in the nation, it has made it more likely
that there will be greater conflict in resolving co-parenting issues. It is
estimated that nearly 20 percent of family law cases involve high conflict
couples. There is a pressing need to resolve or at least reduce these disputes
in the best interest of children.
conflict in itself is not a major problem for a child. Rather it is the exposure
of the child or children to conflict. In an ideal world, parents work
cooperatively to devise parenting plans that are best for their children.
Unfortunately this is not an ideal world. In reality, we find three different
styles of parenting post-divorce: cooperative parenting, conflictive parenting,
or disengaged parenting.
who can cooperate don’t usually seek the courts for interventions, at least on
parental matters. It is the high conflict parents that involve the family court
in their disputes. As I have previously pointed out, this activity will
increase dramatically under the assumption of 50/50 parenting time and joint
two empirical findings we are most in agreement as mental health professionals
are 1) children require the active participation of both parents in their lives
and 2) exposure to parental conflict is one of the most toxic experiences to a
child’s psychological development.
can we assure parental participation without exposing the child to conflict?
Obviously we cannot guarantee the total absence of conflict, but we can reduce
it by disengaging the parents. We do this by setting up an arrangement known as
parallel parenting. We disengage the conflicting parents from each other by
setting up a detailed parenting plan which reduces as much possible direct
interaction between the parents.
concept of parallel parenting is borrowed from the child development
literature. Children below the age of 3 do not usually have the social skills
to play with each other. They can play in the same room but use their own toys
and avoid interactions. As an author puts it “they leave each other alone”
to Bridget Baker, Director of Court Operations of the 8th Judicial Court of
Florida, parallel parenting plans are appropriate for parents who do not get
along, are highly reactive to each other, feel extremely uncomfortable in each
other’s presence, have an order of protection, or cannot cooperate in one or
more major areas of parenting.
parenting arrangements are partially predicted on the assumptions that 1) every
child has the right to a meaningful relationship with each parent 2) every
child has the right to not be exposed to parental conflict 3) every child has
the right to a meaningful relationship with each parent without interference
from the other. Once again the key concept in parallel parenting situations in
parallel parenting arrangements, communication with each parent is minimal and
conducted monthly online through such tools as Our Family Wizard. There is even
a software for objectively handling changes in scheduling. In parallel
parenting, the parent who is with the child makes decisions on all activities
with the child except in emergencies. This includes medical visits,
extracurricular activities, choice of food, etc. Transitions are conducted
without face to face contact as well as participation in school and
The immediate rewards for each parent are minimal
personal interaction, no interference in each other’s parenting, reduction of
stress, and the development of parental autonomy. Most importantly, valuable
financial resources expended on wasteful conflict can be more usefully employed
for the child’s welfare.
of parental alienation are common in high conflict divorces. They are usually a
function of deeper issues in the family including exposure to high intense
marital conflict, humiliating separation, and professional mismanagement (Kelly
& Johnston, 2001). The concept of family alienation was popularized by
Gardner (2002) who describes it as a syndrome. This implies a specific set of
symptoms that are displayed by the alienated child. The syndrome has not been
validated by empirical research. Rather, alienation is more accurately
described as a set of behaviors on the part of a parent which may or may not
result in a child becoming alienated (Kelly & Johnston, 2001).
alienated child is described by Kelly and Johnston (2001) as one who expresses
disproportionately negative behavior about the alienated parent that is not
consistent with his or her actual experience. Alienation may be expressed in
degrees (Paul, 2014). Mild alienation may result in resistance towards visitation.
Moderate alienation may involve the degradation of the alienated parent by the
child. Severe alienation takes the form of false allegations and/or actual fear
of contact with the alienated parent.
article by Baker and Darnall (2006), the most frequently reported alienated
behaviors included “badmouthing”, interference with parental visitation and
contact, limitation of mail and phone contact, interfering with information
such as updating school or medical issues, emotional manipulation, unhealthy
alliances such as spying and reporting back, and symbolic interferences such as
returning Christmas cards.
Two of the
major consequences of alienation on the child are fearfulness and low
self-esteem (Mone & Biringen, 2006). These consequences can last into
adulthood. Alienation has also been found in intact, high conflict marriages.
The longer the alienation, the worse the outcome. Parental alienation may be
described as a form of propaganda (Gottlieb, 2014) in which the alienated
parent is characterized as dangerous, untrustworthy and harassing. The
alienating parent expresses these beliefs in the presence of the child.
The treatment for parent alienation is reunification therapy. It should begin as soon as alienation is detected. Jones, Hardy, and Smyth (2015) warn that there is no guarantee of a successful outcome. This writer views parental unification therapy as a developmental process beginning with addressing time-sharing issues with the child(ren), and then the child(ren) and alienated parent, and finally if possible, the child(ren) and both parents. Dagan and Ailon (2015) offer a checklist for therapists when consulting with lawyers to set up the process of reunification therapy. It includes arranging a conference call with both lawyers at the beginning of the case, reviewing the consent order to treat with emphasis upon the child’s best interests and indemnification of the mental health professional, reviewing the importance of the lawyers assistance, submission of the retainer agreement, review of the limits of confidentiality, reviewing the limitations of psychotherapy, and lastly the agreement of both lawyers to submit any pertinent documents.
Most of you have had to deal with clients who give you major problems. They are uncooperative and irresponsible. They resist direction and/or act obnoxiously. These people probably have a personality disorder. There are 10 different types of personality disorders which I will briefly describe below.
An individual with a paranoid personality disorder is characteristically suspicious and distrustful of others. He may not even trust his own family members. The schizoid personality disorder is withdrawn and cold and exhibits socially inappropriate behavior. This individual may alienate others by being insensitive and unfriendly.
The schizotypal personality disorder is marked by bizarre tendencies. Many of you may recall Tiny Tim, the ukulele player on the late Johnny Carson Show. He is an example of this disorder. The physical appearance of the person may be outlandish and their behavior odd.
The antisocial personality disorder is similar to a psychopath. Such individuals have no conscience. They are dishonest and will harm others in order to satisfy their own needs.
The borderline personality disorder is subject to extreme and variable emotional states, usually anger or anxiety. They miss deadlines and appointments and are prone to extreme interpersonal conflicts.
Histrionic personality disorder in individuals are shallow and dramatic. They are flighty and highly emotional. They crave personal attention.
At the core of the narcissistic personality disorder is self-centeredness. A sense of entitlement makes it difficult to share or to compromise with this individual. They are never wrong. They are self-indulgent.
Avoidant personality disorder cannot bear conflict, nor can they assert themselves. They are basically scared individuals.
Individuals exhibiting a dependent personality disorder cannot function on their own. They will ask others to make decisions for them. They will always ask for help rather than do something on their own.
Finally, the obsessive-compulsive personality disorder individual will probably drive you to distraction with his/her pre-occupation with minutia and need for perfection. They are overly neat and overly organized.
Many court cases are decided upon whether the jury regards an injured plaintiff as faking his/her condition. The intentional or conscious fabrication of symptoms or injuries is called malingering. How do you determine whether your client is malingering? This is not a simple matter. There are several tests designed specifically for measuring malingering such as the Structured Interview of Reported Symptoms (SIRS) or Test of Memory Malingering (TOMM). These are not foolproof measures. There are also validity and reliability scales on popularly used tests such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory 2 (MMPI-II) and Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory 3 (MCMI-III) that address malingering. However, it is not possible to prove definitely whether someone is faking.
It is interesting to note that research shows mental health professionals do not do better than anyone else in distinguishing those who are lying from those who are truthful. A trained expert can infer with some success whether a client is faking by assessing the following: 1) Inconsistencies in reporting such as contradictory symptomalogy or differences in observed vs. reported symptoms; 2) dramatic presentation; 3) too deliberate and/or careful in presentation; 4) symptoms that are incongruent with a particular disorder such as flat affect with an anxiety disorder.
If your client appears to be cooperative rather than defensive in the assessment of his disorder or injury, he/she is probably not a malingerer. It is also important to note that despite no objective evidence symptom complaints do not necessarily provide a basis for establishing malingering. In other words, a person can be experiencing a somatic symptom(s) disorder that has no objective manifestation.
When you ask the question is my client more vulnerable than others to a given trauma, you are asking a complicated question. Other things being equal, individuals with severe mental disorders are at the top of the list of those most vulnerable. This would include schizophrenics, major depressive disorders, and borderline personality disorders.
Vulnerability must be determined on a case-by-case basis by obtaining a case history of the individual and assessing the type and degree of stress he/she has encountered. As an example, most of us would be symptomatic if we encountered a major stressor such as a natural disaster or a death of a loved one. On the other hand, we would tend to have a variety of individually determined reactions to such events as accidents, robberies, assaults, or product failure. Consider the example of two women, each of whom has been the victim of an assault. One has been raised by harsh, moralistic, and rejecting parents and has a history of child abuse. The other is from an affectionate, warm, and accepting family with no history of child abuse. Who is most likely to suffer severe psychological trauma?
Thus, we need to take a thorough developmental history of the client. We then need to collect objective evidence of a preexisting condition. Then we need to complete a psychological assessment with a battery of relevant tests to examine the current psychological condition. We would be especially interested in how our client incorporates the negative event into their world view. Individuals that accept the fact that “bad things can happen to good people”, tend to be less traumatized than individuals whose diagnosis causes them to view the world as unfair or random.
All of you have been exposed to a high conflict parent- you know the client who has been through several lawyers or the one who tries to send you to court on a monthly basis. He/she tries your patience and wears you out. You will need special care to derive workable parenting plans with these individuals. Here are some suggestions.
First, high conflict divorce couples must have a detailed and tight parenting plan. The idea is to mitigate against any foreseeable sources of conflict. Days of the week, even hours of the day must be taken into account. Summer scheduling and holiday visits must be specifically addressed in detail.
A second suggestion is that contact between two high conflict parents must be kept to a minimum. This might take the form of parallel parenting with decision making going to the parent exercising visitation. Third, communication needs to be exchanged in a neutral way, such as by a computer program, e-mail, or text messaging.
The responsibility to represent your client’s concerns must always be weighed against ethical considerations regarding the best interest of the child. Sometimes you may need to ask your client to reconsider going to court on a given issue.
Parental conflicts chronically played out in court, particularly when children know that they are occurring, damages the child’s post-divorce adjustment. These difficulties can last a lifetime. Conflict affects boys and girls equally. Children of all ages are equally affected. Furthermore, even if the child has a positive relationship with each of the parties in conflict, he/she will still be negatively affected emotionally.
In the state of Florida parenting plan evaluations (social investigations) are requested by family lawyers, and evaluators are appointed by the court, FL Statute 61.20. As such the investigator who is appointed works for the court to assist the Trier of Fact in deciding what is in the best interest of the child.
The investigator first requests a copy of the court order appointment. This defines the scope of the investigation and any specific issues that need to be addressed. Lawyers representing each party are then asked by the evaluator to submit information they deem relevant to the investigation. The investigator may request additional information, not necessarily provided by each party, including vocational, educational, and military records.
The investigation is comprehensive, including clinical interviews with each parent, all children, all combinations of children and parents, home visits, and collateral interviews requested by lawyers or chosen by the investigator. The investigator may also want specific material related to the case including accusations of child or domestic abuse, substance abuse, and parental alienation.
Psychological testing may be required if mental health issues such as impulsivity, poor judgment or suicidal behavior are alleged. Testing may be requested for cognitive issues such as developmental delays, poor achievement, learning disabilities, or attention deficit disorder.
Red flags, or troubling findings in the testing results of parents include reported hallucinations or delusions, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, impulse control problem, violence, or abuse potential of parents. These types of findings should be addressed thoroughly in the comprehensive report to the court and may require referrals to the appropriate professionals.
Red flags for children include suicidal ideation, alienation from peers, poor attention and concentration and/or the documentation of special needs such as attention deficit disorder and/ or learning disabilities.
The comprehensive parenting plan evaluation of the investigator should address all items of FL Statute 61.13(3). The report should also include discussions of parental decision making in the areas of health, education and extracurricular activities.
The vast preponderance of literature on parenting plans indicate that the best interests of children are met by encouraging shared visitation and shared decision making by both parents. In the state of Florida, we are also moving quickly toward a model of the presumption of equal time sharing. Any deviation from equal time sharing would entail a significant and detailed documentation of circumstances that would mitigate against this recommendation, e.g. domestic violence, child abuse, drug and or alcohol abuse, etc.
Sole decision making is highly discouraged in the literature except in rare cases. I was recently involved in a case where a guardian recommended sole decision making responsibly to one of the parents because they could not agree. This is not a solution in the best interest of the child.
Reunification therapy is often recommended to the court by the social investigator. It should most often involve the entire family. When a child gets to the point where he/she doesn’t want to see a parent, he/she is either a subject of parent alienation behavior or is a victim of abuse or neglect. In the latter case, reunification must include the participation of the offending parent.
Another frequently made recommendation is for one or both parents to engage in individual therapy. This recommendation is overused particularly when there is no test data to support it. Similarly children do not usually require individual therapy. For children under age 13, parents should be involved to implement therapeutic intervention.
In addition, a guardian ad litem or parent coordinator is often recommended by the court. This, should be reserved for high conflict cases in which there is suspicion of abuse, neglect or parental alienation.
Finally, supervised visitation, is sometimes recommended to the court, it should occur only in the rare cases in which there is a clear and present danger to the health and/or safety of the child. Even when supervised visitation is employed, there should be a remedial plan in place to facilitate the rehabilitation of the supervised parent so that he/she may obtain unsupervised visits.
In an interesting study by Jameson, Ehrenberg, and Hunter (1997), psychologists were asked to rank sixty criteria obtained from legal and psychological authorities that were relevant to the best interest of the child in determining custody. The top five criteria were as follows:
(a) sexual abuse of the child by a parent;
(b) physical abuse of the child by a parent;
(c) the child’s view and preference when the child is fifteen years old or older;
(d) the emotional needs of the child; and
(e) each parent’s ability to understand his or her child’s needs and separate them from his or her own needs.
In another study by Ackerman and Ackerman (1997) two hundred psychologists were surveyed who reported that they had had child custody experience. They were asked what they considered to be significant to determine decision making. The top four criteria were as follows: (a) parent B is an active alcoholic; (b) parent B often attempts to alienate the child from other parent by negatively interpreting the other parent’s behavior; (c) Parent A exhibits better parenting than parent B; and (d) Child appears to have a closer emotional bond with parent A.
What does the combination of these two studies tell us? First there are several concrete and specific criteria which a lawyer may use as an index of the relative merits of his/her request for greater custody (e.g., alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, physical abuse, child’s preference at age fifteen and above). Another less definitive criterion is the psychological stability of the parent. However, clinical psychologists are quite comfortable in assessing these criteria since it is well within the scope of everyday practice. Similarly, assessing the emotional needs of the child is readily assessed by a mental health professional who has expertise in child development. Assessing each parent’s ability to understand his or her child’s needs, and the degree of emotional bonding are far more difficult to assess. There are no tests available that can give definitive answers to these two criteria.
A thorough and detailed case history of your client is the most important part of a forensic evaluation. It provides the context for interpreting psychological tests as well as the rationale for relating client behavior to the legal questions to be explored.
The forensic interview may be the only source for baseline data. The interviewer should inquire about childhood illnesses, early fears, family migration, grade school achievement, dating experiences, job experiences, current health, prescribed medication, physical and mental health problems and treatments. The attorney should provide the psychologist with as much background material as he/she can obtain to buttress the forensic interview. This may include school records, medical charts, military records, employment records, and psychological records.
You must submit all data of importance to your client’s life history so that the investigator can be thorough in his/her evaluation. The investigator cannot address issues that are not contained in the material you present.