When does a parent need therapy when facing a divorce or custody dispute?

We all know that divorce or separation is very hard emotionally. Custody disputes can feel even harder. Parents must not only manage their personal lives and parenting during this time, but also the emotional labor of a divorce or separation. It can be hard to ask for help or even know when or where to start.

The emotional divorce is often a prolonged process beyond the legal divorce, especially for those who share parenting responsibilities (Madden-Derdich & Arditti, 1999). This emotional event begins long before the actual divorce and can last several years following the event. How do we know what is normal stress management and when someone facing divorce or separation needs extra help? How do we make sure a parent’s stress is not impacting the children during this time?

Children must adjust to any major change and they reach to their parents for emotional support and guidance. However, when parents are going through their own live transitions such as divorce, they have difficulty maintaining support the much-needed support and guidance for their children and unintentionally put their children at greater risk for poor post-divorce adjustment (Peris & Emery, 2005).

It is important for families, friends, and professionals working with these parents experiencing divorce or separation to notice when a divorce is impacting one’s daily functioning. Is the parent unable to work the same amount they use to? Do they have unhealthy coping strategies like drinking or extreme spending? Are they conflictual in their coparenting relationship? Are they less attentive as a parent? Or maybe, simply, are they not themselves? These and many other behaviors demonstrate how daily living is impacted and suggest that a parent may need therapy from a qualified therapist.

I see often see members of the parent’s family, friends, and professionals as the initial start to someone seeking emotional support and help. These people are seen as an outside perspective that parents trust. However, these people are ill-equipped to deal with the healing professional help that these parents actually need to fill their cups. Empathetically talking with a parent in a divorce situation about seeking therapy services can make a significant difference on their divorce adjustment and life post-separation. In turn, these parents will have a full cup in which to better assist their most precious asset—their children. It is important for parents to seek help when their daily functioning is impacted. They will benefit and so with their children.

- Erin Guyette, MS, LAMFT


Peris, T. S., & Emery, R. E. (2005). Redefining the parent-child relationship following divorce: Examining the risk for boundary dissolution. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5, 169 189. https://doi.org/10.1300/J135v05n04_01

Madden-Derdich, D. A., Leonard, S. A., & Christopher, F. S. (1999). Boundary ambiguity and coparental conflict after divorce: An empirical test of a family systems model of the divorce process. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 588-598. https://doi.org/10.2307/353562