The Perfect Storm: High-Conflict Family Dynamics, Complex Therapist Reactions, and Suggestions For Clinical Management (Chapter 5 in Overcoming Parent-Child Contact Problems: Family-Based Interventions for Resistance, Rejection, and Alienation).
Judge, Abigail M.
Chapter in Book
Oxford University Press
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In families experiencing high conflict separation or divorce provoke notoriously strong reactions in professionals. Therapist reactions can include inappropriate advocacy on behalf of patients in the legal dispute and, at the level of professional teams, the pull on involved professionals to mirror the conflicted process of the family system through dynamics such as polarization, rigid thinking, and inappropriate alignments. From an ethical perspective, the legal context of custody litigation heightens the importance of therapists’ managing strong reactions to the perfect storm in a proactive manner. Left unexamined, therapist reactions and their enactment within teams have the potential to undermine the therapeutic and legal process, result in ethical missteps, and cause harm. In contrast, proper identification and management of high-conflict dynamics and therapist reactions may help therapists to refine clinical hypotheses, foster cohesive clinical teams, and help families disengage from conflict. Unfortunately, despite frequent references in the literature about maladaptive personality traits and disorders among custody litigants, there is surprisingly limited clinical writing about managing these dynamics in clinical practice. Accordingly, we start with a brief review of contemporary definitions of countertransference and therapist reactions and explain our use of these terms in this chapter. Next, we review the extant empirical research on levels of psychopathology, defensiveness, and maladaptive personality characteristics among custody litigating samples, research that is based primarily in the area of psychological assessment. This review will provide an evidence-based foundation for our discussion of the perfect storm and the range of complex countertransference reactions it can evoke. We put forth that in working with families experiencing high-conflict separation and divorce strong countertransference reactions are the rule, not the exception, and their identification and management is a critical part of intervention. This is true for beginning, intermediate, and seasoned clinicians alike. We conclude with a description of clinical best practices for management of these patterns, based on the clinical literature on managing treatment with court involvement, published practice guidelines, and our combined clinical and forensic experience. (Author abstract);
parent child relationships; parental alienation syndrome; family therapy; family reunification; therapeutic intervention; custody disputes; divorce; worker client relationships; therapists role