Mental Illness and Contested Custody in Divorce

By | June 13, 2019
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Edward Farber, Ph.D, Clinical Psychologist in Reston, recently shared the following with the Fairfax County Bar Association regarding mental illness and contested custody in divorce:

“There is no question – the ability to effectively parent a child and the mental health of a child are clearly linked.  Children of parents with significant personality problems have more social, academic and behavioral issues.  They have greater incidences of attention-deficit disorder, learning disability, depression, anxiety and oppositional deficient behaviors.  They are at greater risk for substance abuse, criminal activity, and acting out behaviors as compared to children of parents who do not have diagnosed psychological or personality problems.  But what we do not know is how much of the children’s emotionality or behavior is due to genetics (the passing on of the traits of mental illness), how much is due to faulty parenting (a schizoid parent not able to demonstrate appropriate affection to an infant), how much is due to parent/child conflict with a dysfunctional parent, or how much is due to vicarious learning (a child modeling inappropriate behaviors or thinking by living with and observing these behaviors in a parent.)” 

While undoubtedly all of the factors listed above influence children’s behavior, anecdotal evidence gleaned from my Northern Virginia divorce practice supports the significant impact of the “vicarious learning” hypothesis.  I regularly caution my clients that their children are watching (and learning).  As depicted in the Cat Stephens’ song “Cats in the Cradle,” children often pattern the behavior of their parents, sometimes despite the parents’ best efforts.  After all, parents are likely children’s first and clearest examples of what it means to be a “parent” and “spouse.”  Would you blame a 10-year old girl, who sees her father shout her mother down during an argument, for assuming that is how romantic relationships work or blame an 8-year old boy, who sees his mother slap his younger brother across the face for misbehaving, for assuming such conduct is just what parents do?  Mental illness and contested custody are a painful combination that, if not handled properly, can have disastrous results, not only for your divorce case, but also your children’s long-term health.  


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