The Flying Therapist: Family Therapy during the Pandemic

Childhood innocene is precious. It has a magic. But that magical innocence comes under threat during times of crisis be they within the home or the world at large. But what happens when a family crisis meets a global crisis? Like the threats facing families during this global pandemic?

In these unprecedented times with the threats to health it’s been a challenging week of professional dilemmas. As a regulated health and social care critical professional who the Government are calling on to continue to provide services to vulnerable children and families there have been some difficult choices to make over the last two weeks.

In my role I seek to to promote, support and safeguard the wellbeing of all children in need or children who may be at risk of harm. Regulated health and social care professionals continue to have a lead role in safeguarding children during the pandemic. This requires them to assess if there are concerns a child may be at risk of emotional abuse or neglect or in need of protection. As a specialist systemic family psychotherapist and a consultant independent social worker I continue to work to ensure my focus is on the child and to ensure they are safe and well. Co-parents and families continue to be helped to make the changes necessary to develop and strengthen their co-parenting alliance so the required outcomes for children are achieved.  

“The social work profession promotes social change, problem-solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems , social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environment. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work”.                       

                                                                         International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW)

Children caught in the middle of the animosity and conflict between their parents fall into the category of children whose emotional health and wellbeing is at risk. Many of the children I assess in Private law have already reached the Public law threshold for emotional abuse due to the length of time they have been affected by parental relationship distress. A child who is caught in the middle of a volatile and conflicted relationship between both their parents over long periods of time is a child at high risk. The lack of meaningful relationships with both their co-parents without justifiable reason in my opinion constitutes a mental health emergency. When a child’s relationship breaks down with a once loved parent who the child is neurologically and relationally wired to attach to the child is at risk of significant harm without an ongoing specialist bespoke tailored systemic family therapy intervention.

Following an instruction to undertake an expert witness assessment involving children who had not had contact with their father for over a year, because the children’s emotional health and wellbeing was at risk I proceeded to make plans to undertake the assessment.

I was booked to fly to an island to undertake this expert assessment on Wednesday 18th March 2020. With the rapidly changing Government guidance and recommendations from the various professional organisations I am registered with, a court order with a deadline for the provision of an expert witness report, the question was if I was to travel or not travel. This significant epidemic posed complex professional and ethical challenges. After weighing the risks and further discussion with the parent’s barristers and the Guardian for the children and a court order in hand I agreed I would fly as long as I could get a return flight home before the borders between the island and the UK got locked down.   

In these testing times it’s important to weigh and balance the need to provide expert assessments safely and to continue where possible.  Expert assessments will continue to be needed for children and families in high risk groups and these children and their parents will continue to need support. Section 1 Children Act 1989 welfare checklist requires the expert to assess the  ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child, their physical, emotional and educational needs and any harm they have suffered or is at risk of suffering. The welfare checklist requires the expert to assess how capable each of the children’s parents, is of meeting the children’s needs. 

Time is the enemy in cases where children resist or refuse to have contact with one of their parents without justifiable reasons. The longer a parent doesn’t have contact with a child the more difficult it is to restore the parent – child relationship.

There is an urgent need to assess parents of children refusing to have contact with a parent and to provide the parents with a specialist tailored bespoke systemic family therapy intervention and start the process of building a co-parenting alliance in the best interests of the children. This therapeutic work should not be suspended due to the pandemic as creative ways can be found to continue working online to ensure during these stressful days and weeks ahead children’s needs in this category continue to be given the high priority it deserves. These times should not be used to erode or undermine the difficult and challenging work co-parents need to undertake to ensure now more than ever that their children can enjoy meaningful relationships with each of their parents. Decisions taken now and over the next few weeks will shape children’s relationships with their parents and it’s important to take into account the short, medium and long term implications of such decisions. 

The Caronavirus is a deadly infection which attaches itself to the lungs and can be fatal. It’s in the environment and it can’t be seen. In the same way high conflict co-parents create an invisible emotional environment infected with feelings of animosity and sometimes hatred towards an ex-partner – feelings that can consume them. Infected co-parents go on to psychically contaminate their children’s natural feelings of love and affection for each of their parents and cause dis-ease of their essential and natural attachment relationships. This dis-ease causes children emotional harm and emotional abuse. It causes immense suffering and is a killer of good parent – child relationships. Children affected by parental relationship distress suffer from this disease which is classified in the DSM – 5 CAPRD, “other conditions that may be a focus of clinical attention” as parent – child relationships can be, “protective, and neutral, or detrimental to health outcomes”. CAPRD is detrimental to the emotional health and wellbeing of children and is experienced as a living loss by the parent who has been rejected.

It’s important that expert assessments of parents and children are undertaken where possible.  The need for bespoke, tailored specialist systemic family therapy continues so the emotional and relationship damage caused by the dis-ease children are being infected by continues to be tackled.

Here are some guidelines for co-parents during the Caronavirus pandemic.

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