By Inna G. Materese | Esquire

For better or for worse, mental health and counseling are frequent topics of conversation in the offices of family law attorneys and in family law courtrooms. It comes as no surprise. As a family dissolves and possibly reconfigures in the process of divorce and/or custody, the stability of the all involved takes center stage.

For many clients, however, it can be difficult to differentiate the various mental health terminology and services referenced in their case. Below is a guide to the types of mental health services and counseling you may encounter in your family law matter:  

  1. Marriage Counseling. Marriage counseling, sometimes also referred to as couples therapy, is a type of psychotherapy. Many clients attend marriage counseling prior to separating. Clients are often surprised to hear, however, that the Divorce Code permits the Court to order marriage counseling upon the request of either party (when the no-fault grounds for divorce, as well as the fault ground of indignities, is asserted). Marriage counseling is often provided by licensed therapists known as marriage and family therapists. These therapists have graduate or postgraduate degrees — and many choose to become credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
  2. Anger Management Counseling/Treatment. In the context of custody litigation, litigants  at times assert that their co-parent has anger management issues. An evaluation by a mental health professional is necessary to truly determine whether those claims are correct. If necessary, Anger Management counseling refers to the process by which a person learns how to identify stressors, take necessary steps to remain calm, and handle tense situations in a constructive, positive manner. The purpose of this type of individual counseling is to help a person learn how to control reactions and respond in a socially appropriate manner. 
  3. Co-parenting Counseling.  Co-parenting counseling is by far the most prevalent type of therapy considered and ordered by our family court judges. Communicating and working cooperatively with the other parent can be difficult, particularly in the stressful and oft-contentious process of a pending divorce. Co-parenting counseling allows parents an opportunity to talk about the best interests of their children in a neutral environment, voice concerns and/or issues and, when appropriate, to get input and advice from a professional who is experienced in working with children and families of divorce. Issues ranging from custody schedules to day-to-day parenting can be discussed. Co-parenting counseling may be short-term or long-term, as the litigants may agree or as may be ordered by the Court.
  4. Reunification Therapy/Counseling. Sometimes a child can lose contact with (or be resistant to such contact) a parent during the challenging and confusing process of separation and divorce. Reunification therapy is often sought to reunite an alienated parent with his or her child(ren). The primary goal of the therapy is to reestablish the relationship between the parent and child so that they can resume a healthy parent-child relationship. The process of reunification and the role of the reunification therapist can be complex and much depends on the source of the alienation. 

While not a form of counseling/therapy, many custody litigants will encounter the term "custody evaluation." This assessment is conducted by a mental health professional and strives to analyze the 16 custody factors for the Court prior to a custody hearing. Mental health and psychological evaluations, as well as interviews with the parents and observations of the family dynamics, are utilized. The process is short term but may take several months to complete. It may be agreed-upon by the parties but must often be ordered by the court. 

Speak with your attorney if you believe any of the above forms of counseling can be helpful to your family.