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Expert Voices

Should Families Going Through Divorce Have Court-Ordered Psychiatrists? (Op-Ed)

sad child, divorce, counseling
(Image: © Tom Gowanlock/Shutterstock.com)

David Mejias is an attorney specializing in family law and divorce. He is a managing partner at Mejias, Milgrim & Alvarado, where he has practiced law for 18 years. He currently serves as the chairman of the Long Island Hispanic Bar Foundation, the charitable branch of the Long Island Hispanic Bar Association for which he has previously served as president. In 2003, Mejias became the first Latino elected to the Nassau County Legislature, where he served from 2004 to 2010. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.  

Ask most children of divorce and they will agree, they were victims of a difficult childhood and they, decades later, admit they still face struggles that emerged from their parents' divorce. 

Divorce is an all too common occurrence that can cause families to put their children at risk for a lifetime of daily mental and emotional problems. According to psychologist Judith Wallerstein, who followed a group of children of divorce for 25 years, divorce is not a sudden obstacle the child faces, but a life-changing occurrence that alters their self-views and their opinion of the world at large. The study, which began in 1976, was a comprehensive one with multiple findings and publications. The full findings can be found in Hyperion’s 2000 publication "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: a 25 Year Landmark Study." Wallerstein's ultimate finding was that divorce is not one wound from childhood, but a scar that remains for years. [Divorce Hits Youngest Kids the Hardest, Study Finds]

Divorce's emotional damage

As a divorce lawyer, I'm forced to see the fallout of shattered relationships and the struggles each spouse faces in coming to terms with what they perceive as failure, loss and sometimes abandonment. 

The children suffer persistent feelings of insecurity and self-doubt as a result of absentee parents as discussed by R. Chris Fraley and Marie E. Heffernan’s of the University of Illinois 2013 study, Attachment and Parental Divorce: A Test of the Diffusion and Sensitive Period Hypotheses. And what disheartens me the most is that on the front lines, it seems the children most at risk are the ones whose parents are the least likely to take time to talk about the child's feelings, academics, problem-behavior or insecurities. 

In fact, these are the same parents I see using their child as a pawn while waging war against the other parent. 

If the child turns to alcohol and drug use — or his or her academics falter, as is prone to happen — many parents berate and scold the child without taking into account their own culpability for their child's behavior. 

The number of parents I have seen use their child as subterfuge against their former spouse would shock even the least romantic of us. Beyond the most obvious cases, there are hidden scars that surface when parents often don't even realize how horrible they are being, and many parents subconsciously make their child feel guilty for spending time with the other parent. 

Not-so-subtle cues

Children are all too good at reading the room and sensing the tension in the air. I see parents greet each other in front of their child with no smile or affection, no joy or light. Their body language turns limp or hardened depending on the reasons for divorce. The child is left confused about how they should feel, and from whom they should be taking cues. 

What's worse is that when the child returns to the primary caregiver after a fun weekend with his stepparent and biological mother or father, the feelings of awkwardness coming home are a constant struggle. Unable to bear the thought of their spouse being better liked, or incapable of listening to their child discuss how their weekend went with their former spouse and their new stepparent, the caregiver will often close up and choose silence instead. 

The child gets an unintended cue that they are not to speak about the other parent, or they feel as though they have done something wrong and betrayed one or both of their parents. 

The alternative to silence is the gossipy parent who demands to know every juicy detail about any potential flames hanging around the child or how much money the parent spent, then being visibly frustrated by the money spent on presents for the child, while fuming over late or nonexistent alimony or child support payments. 

Protecting the children of divorce

So if you are facing divorce, what can be done to protect your child from the unintended consequences of your bitter home life? How can you keep your child from feeling abandoned, insecure and guilty if you don't even realize when or how you are making them feel inadequate? 

Divorce lawyers do not make the best therapists, and while I respect each and every one of my clients and feel compelled by their pain, I cannot be the sole witness to their deterioration and often find myself weighing the pros and cons of telling my clients when I notice they are hurting or isolating their child without realizing it. 

My job, society and the American family would be better off with court-appointed therapy, experts able to help the family deal with the fallout. The focus of their sessions would better the mental health of all involved: mothers, fathers and children. 

A parent loses his or her objectivity over their child's well-being when half of that child's time is spent with an adversary. Utilizing court-ordered therapy allows for legal dilemmas to be solved emotionally and therapeutically, creating a positive outcome where the child and parent can adjust to their new roles.

The courts currently have court-ordered therapy, in the form of reunification counseling. This counseling is assigned based on requests from one parent’s lawyer, requests from the attorney for the child, and sometimes by more proactive judges. The idea is usually presented when a child and parent's relationship is damaged or estranged as a result of the divorce.

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For the parent, he or she learns how to have a new beginning without altering the child's world so drastically that the child's foundation becomes unrecognizable; and the child learns to cope with change and deal with adversity. 

Another, often forgotten, conflict that may need soothing is the relationship between exes and their extended family: either in-laws or their own extended family. Divorce can cause religious and emotional tensions in one's own family and cause them to treat the suffering parent as a failure or disappointment. [10 Scientific Tips For Raising Happy Kids]

At times, the extended family may denigrate the other spouse in front of the child, causing confusion and tension. These issues should be sought out and discussed within the group therapy. 

Perhaps controlling former in-laws, or your own extended family, is a non-starter, but the child and parents can learn to cope and navigate odd situations. 

We are all doing our best to live our best lives, to raise the happiest children and have the most wonderful marriages, but that doesn't always happen. It's hard to make something perfect without practice. And something as gut-wrenching as a divorce will never be perfect — but it can be less harmful.

We can close those wounds and protect the children who are unwittingly stuck between two negative forces, stuck seeing everyone move on and not understanding what big bang even happened in the first place. In divorce, you can't be objective — so let the court assign someone to be objective for you. 

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.