It takes a lot to surprise me as a therapist.
Clients have told me that they’d like to give their adopted children back. Children have told me how they help cover up their parent’s addictions. Once, a school psychologist even insisted that a well-behaved child should go to a special behavioral school because the psychologist didn’t like a former diagnosis in the child’s school files.
But this session . . .
“We’re divorced, and we’d like to make sure that we’re doing the right things as parents of our kids,” the father said. “That’s why we came to see you.”
Okay, that one surprised me.
Here’s how it normally goes when divorced parents come in for family therapy:
“He abused me.”
“She’s a controlling harpy.”
“He checked out the babysitter.”
“She’s poisoning the children against me.”
“Why does he have to drink in front of the kids?”
“Who’s that stranger trying to act like a father to my children?”
“The problem is him!”
“The problem is her!”
Those are the things I expect. In fact, my family therapy mentor, Dr. Gil Greene of The Ohio State University, likes to say that family therapists will always have job security as long as there’s divorce. But the couple in my office continued to surprise me.
“I agree,” the mother said. “He’s a good father, but we struggle sometimes with knowing if we’re doing any damage to the kids. We hope that you can help guide us through that.”
So nobody wants to call anybody a name? Nobody wants to threaten anyone? Nobody wants to use the children as a way to attack the other parent? What was I supposed to do with this . . . this . . . cooperation? It was all I could do to keep from breaking into a therapeutic happy dance.
This couple should be the norm, not the exception, but that’s just not easy to do. People who break up often can’t stand each other. They often feel varying degrees of hate for the other parent, and it’s hard to see good qualities in someone that you actively loathe.
Of course, kids suffer in these situations. They feel torn between their parents. They feel like the breakup is their fault. They feel anger that they don’t really understand but that they have no trouble expressing. And if Mom or Dad happens to start dating someone else, well, heaven help them all.
So I smiled at the couple, thanked the therapy gods for sending me two people who wanted to put the children first, and thanked them for coming in.
“I’m guessing you’re co-parenting better than you think you are,” I said, “just because you’re so determined to do the right things by your kids. Tell me about the things that you’re doing that seem to be working . . .”
I didn’t see that couple for long. They were indeed doing a lot of things well, and my job was just to help them tweak a few things along with helping them develop confidence in themselves as parents. After a couple of sessions, they really didn’t need to keep seeing me. I could fill their time slot with another set of parents looking for help.
“Their dad’s an alcoholic loser who never worked a day in his life,” the mom said at the start of my first session with the new family. “I hope the court never lets him see the kids again.”
Ah. That’s what I’m used to hearing. Time to get to work . . .
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He’s also a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. His private practice, Grody Family Counseling, is located in Worthington, Ohio. For questions or to make an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)