Collaborative Practice is unique among divorce process options in that it offers a constructive way of including the voice of your child/ren. The Child Specialist is a child therapist with extensive experience in separation and divorce. His or her role is to gather information about your child/ren’s emotional state and experience, and to bring that information to you for use in the Collaborative process. The Child Specialist is not an advocate or custody evaluator, he or she will not write a report or make custody recommendations. Rather, he or she is a neutral member of the team, and is bound by the parameters of the Collaborative Participation Agreement. A Child Specialist is likely to meet first with you and your spouse (either in separate sessions, together, or both), then with your child/ren (typically for one to three sessions- either separately, together, or both), then in a five-way meeting with you, your spouse, and your coaches (or attorneys if you’re not using coaches). The Child Specialist will offer observations about your child/ren that will be helpful to you and your team in the development of your parenting plan. Your lawyer or coach will likely raise the question of whether using a Child Specialist makes sense for your family– but if not, don’t be afraid to raise the issue yourself! As with everything else in Collaborative- raising a topic for discussion (and considering options) does not imply a commitment to taking any particular path.
Some common questions/concerns about using a Child Specialist:
“One of the reasons we chose Collaborative was to keep our kids out of the middle and to make sure they don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. Won’t sending them to a Child Specialist work against those goals?”
This is a great question, because it shows that you’re working to emotionally protect your child/ren during this difficult time. It may be counter-intuitive, but kids nearly always feel relieved to have a neutral person to talk to about what’s happening in their family. In fact, the biggest complaint we hear from adult children of divorce is that no one asked them how they felt about their parents’ split as it was happening. Child Specialists, because they’re experienced therapists, are skilled at putting children at ease quickly. They don’t push for information, and are always careful to make sure kids understand that they’re not being asked to choose which parent they’d like to live with or how they would like their time divided. And if a child does make his or her preferences known, a child specialist will make sure the child understands that while the adults are all interested in his or her feelings, the final decisions will be made by their parents- together.
“I’m concerned that my child won’t share her real feelings, but will say what her other parent wants her to say!”
Unfortunately, sometimes kids are “coached” by one parent to recite certain derogatory facts about the other parent or to state preferences or positions that don’t reflect a child’s true feelings but rather the positions of that parent. Experienced Child Specialists are trained to sort out a child’s authentic feelings, wishes, and conflicts and distinguish them from parroted scripts.
“What my young child says is not always what he really means. I’m worried a child specialist will treat my child’s words as facts.”
We know that (especially when they’re very young) what a child says he wants may not offer an accurate read of his true feelings. Child Specialists are always listening for what lies beneath. Here’s an example: Five year-olds are not typically versed in common weekly schedules for kids of divorce. So, if your five year-old says “I want to live with Mom for one week and with Dad for one week” we know that either he has been coached or, as is more often the case, he is finding words to express a deeper feeling— such as, “My friend Sam lives with each parent every other week. I want to make sure that I also get to spend a lot of time with both of my parents.”
“I’m worried that if my child says something negative about our relationship my future ex will use that information against me in custody discussions.”
One of the central differences between litigation and Collaborative Divorce is that while in custody litigation any unfavorable information about you as a parent is likely to be used as evidence against you, in Collaborative Divorce that information will be used constructively, not punitively. If a child Specialist identifies vulnerabilities in either you or your co-parent’s parenting (and what parent doesn’t have them?), or points of stress in either (or both) of your relationships with your kids, your team will want to use that information to shore up the areas of difficulty in order to ensure that you each have the best parenting (and co-parenting) relationships possible. A child specialist is an ally, not a judge.
Have more questions or concerns about the potential benefits of using a Child Specialist in your Collaborative Divorce? Just ask a member of your team.