Separation/Divorce at the Walk-in

One of the situations at the walk-in that brings complexity is when the presenting concern is related to separation and divorce.  Given that approximately four in every ten marriages in Canada experience divorce it makes sense that families seek assistance at the walk-in clinic when children struggle with the changes.  For many reasons this presents complex circumstances that are important to take into consideration.  Where many clinics will not meet with children when brought to the walk-in by one care giver while sighting a context of separation or divorce I believe there are circumstances in which it is important to go forward with the walk-in conversation.  Whether we meet with the children and caregivers or not, is a decision that is made after great consideration and discussion amongst the walk-in team.   There are several aspects we want to consider that go into our decision-making.  I will share a few of these here.  From these considerations there are many possible ways to proceed and conversational territories to explore.  For space reasons I will not share those kinds of conversations here, perhaps in a later field note, but for now hopefully some of these ideas spark conversations at your clinics with your teams.  These ideas have come out of many conversations with the excellent people I work with at my clinic as we have struggled with how to proceed. I want to thank them for their input and debate.

First, it is important to note many discourses shape the stories people hold about their experience of separation/divorce as they visit the walk-in clinic.  “Discourses are the underlying beliefs that structure and guide people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions in a given culture” (Beaudoin, M-N, 2004, p. 51).  Discourses shaping meaning about separation and divorce include but are not limited to legal, medical, psychiatric, psychological and personal (Blank, G.K., Nely, T. 2006). Any discourse influences what information and knowledge gets privileged and circulated. Dominant discourses shape people’s meaning making and can serve to eclipse everyday know-how and common sense.    

As a brief narrative therapist understanding how discourses are related to what gets said and by who informs our practice. Being aware of the discourses helps us recognize and take into consideration the part they play in shaping the many stories of separation and divorce brought to the walk-in clinic.  This informs how we proceed.  

  • Legal discourse invites an agenda in which people are seeking walk-in service for their child to ‘disclose’ to a professional the detriment they suffer on visitations. Caregivers may seek testimony that can be used to address custody and access matters.   They may find themselves referred to the walk-in by their lawyer. 
  • Medical discourse and the language of 'the syndrome' such as parental alienation syndrome leaves out an appraisal of social context- the experiences of the child. It invites attempts to cure the affected child or ill parent. It’s a gateway to psychiatric explanations.
  • Psychiatric discourse can turn contextualized distress and ‘responses’ (sadness, worry, navigating the new situation) into a disease, an aberration of the child.  It lends permission to the drugging of kids especially when they are difficult with one parent or the other.
  • Psychological discourse with an emphasis on linear causal thinking can influence a construction of parental responses and actions as purposefully destructive, manipulative, and vengeful.  Those understandings can prove divisive leaving good intentions and parent preferences out of story-lines.   
  • The personal discourses are shaped by all these discourses as well as past and recent experiences.  They shape the meaning people make of the events related to divorce/separation.

I am not suggesting that any of these discourses are right or wrong.  I am acknowledging that they shape the meaning making in different ways making visible different courses of action while marginalizing others.  For my purposes some discourses may close down possibility while others support it.  

Another notion about discourses is that they support the power of some persons or groups, serving their agenda while leaving others to the sidelines.  In the context of children’s mental health my priority is the child.   Having an awareness of these discourses and how they shape meaning making, as well as how they may serve some individuals over others assists me to “stay within the child’s best interests” rather then the interests of the people the discourse may be serving (Blank, G.k., & Ney, T.).  Given this we can make the most of a session by striving to stay connected to the child’s world, their thoughts, feelings and actions that inform their experiences and the know-how they generate and employ to navigate the transition.  

In practice the referring caregiver upon arrival at the walk-in is asked to complete a pre-session questionnaire that can alert us to any custody and access concerns. They are required to acknowledge that they realize we (the service provider) do not get involved in custody/access disputes, or provide assessments for legal action.  Whether we meet with the child/care giver or not at the Walk-in Clinic is determined by the supervisor in consultation with lead therapist/team and is a situation-by-situation determination. Should the referent indicate that they are involved in custody and access matters on the pre-session form we have a specific conversation with the referent (a pre-meeting) about the conditions under which we would consider meeting with their child and/or themselves.  Some of the consideration and conditions are as follows:

  • We view the child/youth as our primary concern and will meet with them to assist with finding ways to carry on amidst their life circumstances.  However we also recognize that discussing coping with the young person in the midst of adult conflict may unintentionally support living amongst ongoing conflict.  Should we suspect emotional harm or physical harm might be occurring we are obligated to bring Child Protection Services into the conversation.  
  • We hold an influential yet de-centred position seeking local knowledge- related to skills for living, abilities, and knowledges such as rememberings that can be brought forward to address the context of the youth’s situation.
  • We hold the responsibility to ensure our contribution to the conversations resists escalating the situation and strives to provide a process supporting de-escalation.  
  • Both parents may be involved separately when it is deemed safe and fitting.
  • We will not sponsor conversations that problematize or totalize a care-giver as we recognize the multi-storied aspects of life and relationships.  
  • We will not entertain conversations in which the referrer talks poorly of the other care giver.
  • We will not elicit conversations about the child’s living arrangement ‘wishes’ recognizing that those ‘wishes’ involve a complexity of circumstances not easily heard in a time constrained conversation.  Should the child bring this up, our conversation option is to inquire as to what that ‘wish’ says about what the child values in all child/parent relationships and relationships in general.  
  • Our preference is to work in teams with a lead therapist and outsider witness or co-therapist to assist to inoculate against unintended alliances and pulls in the process.

Flags for NOT Proceeding With a Walk-in Conversation: 

There are important signals that suggest to us that it would be too hazardous for the family to proceed with the walk-in conversation.  However each decision is situational and even though we are aware of flags for not proceeding there are times we may meet with the child especially if they are experiencing overwhelming distress.  Some of the flags for not proceeding include:

  • There is ongoing exposure to violence, high conflict, or oppression.  For instance if the ex-partners are still living together through the transition be aware of the position the child may be in.  
  • The care giver is involved in a custody access dispute (conditional)
  • The child is functioning ‘well enough’ in life domains of school, relationships, community, family, and sleeping well enough.
  • If the parent is seeking to have the child testify; that is wanting the therapist to elicit the child’s feelings about the situation, visits to the ex-partners home, or other arrangements. 
  • If the parent has been sent by a third party and is not sure why, (ex. a lawyer). 
  • If meeting is to be kept secret from the other parent (conditional), the other parent is unaware and/or in opposition to seeking counselling support on behalf of the child.

Criteria for Proceeding With a Walk-in Conversation:

  • If the child’s daily living is suffering; that is if there is distress that is interfering with sleep, school, relationships with peers and family beyond what might be expected in these situations.
  • If it seems apparent that the child is not amidst ongoing high conflict.
  • If the child is at an age and place where they can understand that their distress is in relation to the separation/divorce.  

I hope these considerations provide for some conversation at t your agency.  As always I welcome your thoughts and feedback which can be sent here.

In Curiosity,



Beaudoin, M., & Taylor, M. (2004). Breaking the culture of bullying and disrespect, grades K-8: Best practices and successful strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Blank, G.K & Ney, T: The (De)construction of Conflict in Divorce Litigation: A discursive critique of “parental alienation syndrome” and “the alienated child”. Family Court Review, Vol. 44, No 1, January 2006 135-148.

© Scot J. Cooper Inc. 2021