Psychologists Working With Families in Transition

By September 2, 2014May 29th, 2019Separation and Divorce

This article describes the services a psychologist can provide for parents, children and/or the courts when families transition through separation and divorce. While the following descriptions provide a range of alternatives, it is likely that lawyers will encounter situations that do not neatly fit into any one area. Each family is a unique and dynamic system that requires services tailored to meet their distinctive needs. Professional services must be personalized if they are to be intentional, consequential, and successful.

When counsel or their clients engage the services of a psychologist it is prudent to clarify responsibilities and objectives. The parameters of the service to be provided must be clearly delineated and agreed upon by all parties. The types of agreements to be reached can vary. They can range from a simple agreement with parents to address child/parent adjustment issues in therapy, to a more complex multi-faceted retainer agreement regarding a custody assessment that involves both parties and their lawyers.

It is the responsibility of the psychologist to ensure that agreements for services to be provided adhere to the ethical and professional requirements of the College of Alberta Psychologists. For example, it is critical that a role conflict for the psychologist does not inherently exist within the agreement that outlines services to be provided. The most obvious example is an agreement that involves the provision of both assessment and counselling. Within the context of separation and divorce, this dual role is viewed as role conflict for a psychologist. Further, a role conflict would exist if a psychologist were to assist a divorcing couple to develop a parenting plan while providing individual counselling to one of the parents. The agreement for services must also include professional fees for specific services, the parties responsible for paying the fees, and the manner in which the fees are to be rendered (i.e. on retainer or at the time the service is to be provided). The documents that guide the psychologist’s ethical and professional practice can be found in Appendix A.

The Roles of a Psychologist

I. Child and Family Development Consultant

A psychologist can be a consultant in the areas of child and family development. As a consultant, the psychologist can complement and support the work of collaborative family lawyers. The consultation can include attending a meeting without prior involvement with the family to discuss general developmental principles, suggesting a range of options for given areas of disagreement, or meeting with parents and/or children regarding identified issues and giving feedback specific to these issues in a joint meeting.

II. Post Separation/Divorce Coaching

A psychologist can serve as a coach to individuals, couples, and families. Psychologists are well trained in communication skills, problem solving, conflict resolution, family dynamics, and child development. Coaching can focus on assisting with individual behaviour change, fostering stronger parent/child or co-parenting relationships, developing parenting skills, and enhancing personal development and adjustment. Coaching is an individual activity. The coach works with one parent, although both parents may choose to utilize the services of different coaches. The parents may sign the necessary consent forms to allow the coaches to confer with one another if this is deemed to be beneficial to the parties.

Coaching focuses on the actual behavioural output of the parent rather than on internal/emotional/psychological factors. Coaching is not therapy. An individual may be referred to a psychologist if these factors interfere with the goals of the coaching process.

Coaching is a healthy and productive way for parents to move through the process of separation/divorce to achieve their individual and mutual goals. Utilizing a psychologist as a coach is an excellent tool to enhance the collaborative legal approach.

III. Parenting Coordinator

A newly emerging role is the psychologist serving as a parenting coordinator. Parent coordinators assist parents in developing, modifying or adhering to post-divorce custody and parenting arrangements. The parenting coordinator is appointed by the court to educate, assist, and support the parents in putting the children’s needs first. While new to Alberta, several areas of the United States have well-developed protocols for parent coordinators. In areas clearly defined by the court, decision-making ability is delegated to the parenting coordinator. Although the court appoints the parent coordinator, it is usually necessary for both parents to agree to this process before a parenting coordinator can be utilized.

The appointment of a parenting coordinator can provide quick response to crises and often serves to reduce the frequency of court applications.

IV. Post Separation/Divorce Counselling

Post-separation/divorce counselling is considered to be at the “low-conflict” end of the Parental Conflict Intervention model. Parents may self-refer to get advice on issues such as: how to tell the children about the separation/divorce, how to handle transition times, how to equitably share or vary parenting arrangements, how to select a school location, how to address developmental changes, or how to address behavioural issues with the children. Parents can use this opportunity to learn “how to do their divorce better than their marriage” in the areas of communication, co-parenting, and problem solving.

V. Therapeutic Facilitated Access

Therapeutic Facilitated Access is a structured, guided process aimed at forming a healthy relationship between a parent and child when contact has not occurred for an extended time due to alienation, estrangement or as a result of inappropriate behaviour by the parent. In this role the psychologist is an active, present coach who assists in healing the relationship and in developing healthy parent-child interactions. This is done through education, coaching, modeling and interacting with the parent and child in a therapeutic setting. It can be especially helpful in cases where the parent is only allowed supervised access with the child.

VI. Mediation

Some psychologists have received specific training in mediation. Parents in conflict may benefit from working with a psychologist/mediator who will facilitate a constructive discussion regarding unresolved issues and assist the parties to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Mediation is a very effective way for individuals to be in control of the decision-making process during the ending of a marriage. When mediation is successful, the relationship is more likely to be maintained, the costs of separation/divorce are reduced, and the legal process enables the parties to validate their needs and requirements with confidence.

VII. Parental Conflict Intervention: Moderate to High Conflict Situations

Psychologists trained in parent conflict intervention can be very successful in assisting divorcing parents to effectively move through their intense and usually destructive conflict. Separating and divorcing parents experiencing an elevated degree of conflict often respond positively to a highly directive therapeutic approach that is behaviour and future focused. Following an initial one-hour session with each parent to address the historical context of the conflict, the psychologist works with the parents individually and/or jointly to develop rules and guidelines around areas of contention. At times, a detailed and complete parenting plan is developed that endeavours to address all outstanding issues. If emotional/psychological factors appear to be interfering with an individual’s ability to participate in the intervention, the individual is referred for therapy to address those issues.

It may be necessary for the psychologist to meet with the child(ren) during the parent conflict intervention. If a child is conveying vastly different accounts of events to either parent, the psychologist may meet with the child(ren) a limited number of times to ascertain the origin of such statements. If the child(ren) are viewed to be experiencing significant adjustment problems, the child(ren) may be referred to another psychologist for therapy to address adjustment issues.

VIII. Parental Conflict Intervention: High to Extreme Conflict

In case of extreme parental conflict, it is vital that psychologists have received specific training in working with these very difficult families. The case coordinator will do the initial intake, draw up the retainer agreements, have discussions with lawyers as appropriate, and have the necessary consent forms signed. The case coordinator will establish a treatment team. The case coordinator will assign each parent to a different psychologist who will address past issues as well as the need for changes in their future behaviour. The parties involved will have signed consent forms allowing the treatment team to confer as needed. In situations of high to extreme conflict, the children are usually involved in the conflict and experience great distress. When this occurs, it is necessary for the children to see their own therapist to extract them from the parental conflict and to address adjustment issues.

If/when it is necessary for joint sessions between the parents to occur, both psychologists are in attendance. The children’s therapist may meet with one parent and the children and then the other parent and the children to begin to re-establish and normalize parent-child relationships. The children’s therapist does provide information to the parents’ therapists as part of the treatment team planning and for joint sessions.

IX. Focused Custody Opinion

A psychologist may provide an expert opinion regarding specific custody issues. This is called a focused custody opinion. A focused custody opinion is an evaluation a limited number of issues without making recommendations regarding custody or access. Examples of a focused custody opinion include ascertaining what the views of an older child may be regarding residence, or the presence of undue influence (i.e. parental alienation). A psychologist may be asked to provide a focused custody opinion to identify the needs of the family and how they can best be met (counselling, parent conflict intervention, mediation, custody assessment, etc.).

X. Parenting/Psychological Assessment

A parenting/psychological assessment (of only one parent) involves the evaluation of parenting attitudes, beliefs, skills, and personality and the examination of parent-child relationship factors. This assessment includes an evaluation of the appropriateness or risk of a parent. As only one party is assessed, recommendations regarding custody/access cannot be made. College of Alberta Psychologists Professional Guidelines for Psychologists: Psychological Evaluations for Child Protection Decisions (2001) provide a framework for such an assessment.

XI. Open Custody Assessment

A bilateral (open) custody assessment involves an in-depth study of all family members and includes recommendations regarding the parental arrangements that will meet the “best interests of the child”. The goal of an open custody assessment is to make clear recommendations regarding a parenting plan and the family supports needed, including custody and access arrangements.

**In moving through the above services outlined from I to XI, it is apparent that there is a gradual loss of decision-making control on the part of the parents and an increased reliance on professionals (judges, lawyers and psychologists). The goal of these services is to inform, support, facilitate, direct or, in extreme circumstances, to take over parental decision-making and the reconstruction of family relationships as the family moves through the transition of separation/divorce.

XII. Review/Critique of Assessment

Psychologists are able to review the work of other psychologists in order to determine if appropriate standards for assessment were met and if the conclusions appear supported by the data collected. The critique does not include a statement regarding alternative recommendations. The psychologist conducting the review/critique is not directly involved in assessing the family and does not have the necessary information to make such recommendations.

XIII. Litigation Support

Psychologists can provide litigation support for lawyers during the legal process. The psychologist can assist the lawyer in developing questions for examination or cross-examination on psychological/parenting/child development issues or give expert advice regarding the content of specific testimony. The psychologist providing litigation support may attend at court to hear evidence as it is being presented and respond to the immediate queries of the lawyer.


Documents that guide a psychologist’s practice include:

  1. Canadian Psychological Association: Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists – Third Edition (2000)
  2. College of Alberta Psychologists: Code of Conduct (2000)
  3. College of Alberta Psychologists: Professional Guidelines for Psychologists:
    A. Child Custody Assessment (2002).
    B. Dual Roles: Guidelines for Conducting Assessments and Providing Therapy with the Same Client (2004).

These documents may be accessed electronically through the College of Alberta Psychologists website ( under the heading of “Publications” and the sub-heading of “Ethics, Guidelines, Bylaws”.

It is important to note that the Professional Guidelines for Psychologists: Child Custody Assessment (2002) state, “A comprehensive child custody assessment typically requires an evaluation of the parenting capacities of parents, and their new partners, and an evaluation of the needs of the children, as well as observations of the interactions among them. Extensive sources of data help to provide information representative of families’ and children’s lives. An assessment of limited scope utilizes a more limited set of data that should be restricted in its use. If the parenting capacity of only one parent is evaluated, then no recommendations can be made favouring custody and access for one parent over the other parent. If only the psychological needs of a child are evaluated, then no recommendations can be made regarding custody” (p.2).

The Professional Guidelines for Psychologists: Child Custody Assessment (2002) also state, “Psychologists should avoid appending terms such as “mini-” or “focused-” to that of “child custody assessment” in order to avoid misrepresentation about limitations of data and forensic usefulness of a clinical evaluation. An evaluation focused on a specific issue should not be considered sufficiently comprehensive to warrant comment on custody or be presented to Court as if it was generated from a comprehensive child custody assessment. Such a report should not be considered a substitute for a child custody assessment, and this should be clearly stated at the beginning of any written report” (p.5).

Stephen Carter, Ph.D., R.Psych.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph.D., R.Psych.