Further work with the parental couple, wider family and professional network

Once some progress has been made, it can be sustained if meetings with the parental couple arc scheduled in monthly intervals to review progress. Inter-parental communication and feedback systems can be set up, ideally via email, with the practitioner copied into any communications between the parents about issues concerning the children. Specific procedures can be established as to how frequent and voluminous the email contact should or can be and what the topics for intcr-parcntal communication might be. The virtual presence of a third person - the practitioner - encourages many couples with a history of past email battles, to moderate their tone and any implied demands and criticisms. From time to time the practitioner may comment - via an email to both expartners - on specific aspects of the inter-parental email communications which should centre around handover, changes of contact schedules, plans regarding the child’s birthday and festivals that need to be observed and/or celebrated and sometimes also about the introduction of a new partner or step-child. Intcr-parcntal communication systems of this nature arc a form of relapse prevention. To avoid parents becoming dependent on the practitioner for the facilitation of contact, responsible adults from the wider family and friendship network can be nominated to play an ongoing role in managing handover and supervising contacts, as well as helping parents to overcome communication difficulties and resolve disputes. Members of the child’s wider family network who have been identified as potentially undermining contact can also be included in direct work at this stage, so as to help them recognize and understand the potential harmful impact on the child of their adversarial stance. Additional professional support may be sought and specific therapeutic interventions have been developed with the aim to increase the parental capacity to mentalizc effectively, such as Mcntalization-Bascd Family Therapy (Ascn & Fonagy 2012b, 2017b; Keavcny ct al. 2012), the Lighthouse Parenting Programme (http:lighthouscparcnting.net) and Reflective Parenting (Cooper & Redfern 2015).

Relapse prevention and early recognition ofunhelpful patterns

After several years of Mr M being separated from his children, the court ordered the reinstatement of contact between Josh, Ryan and Harry with their father. Contact took place on two occasions and Mr M was hopeful even though both children had remained totally silent and not made any eye contact with him. However, neither child had objected to attending contact and they also did not refuse to enter the room or run away crying, as they had done in the past. The children sat with their mother for around 20 minutes without saying a word. The subsequent scheduled contact session was cancelled by the mother, with no warning or explanation, leaving Mr M angry and fearful that the tenuous progress that he felt had been made would be lost. He responded by expressing his anger in a stream of irate emails to the children’s mother. Ms M experienced this as harassment and she responded via her solicitor, asking Mr M to stop the messages and threatening that she would obtain a restraining order. Mr M felt misunderstood and denigrated and he worked even harder to make his case, contacting the children’s guardian, the practitioners and others in the family’s joint social network, stating that the mother was obstructing contact. Ms M and the children then began to cite the father’s behaviour as evidence that he had not changed and that there should therefore be no contact.

Once contact has been re-established, and the child and distanced parent’s anxiety at the prospect of contact has been overcome, it is helpful for parents to step back and try to identify patterns of behaviour that may lead to a relapse in the future - to avoid matters spiralling out of control. Parents can be reminded that people can change and that one should not jump to conclusions merely on the basis of an cx-partner’s past behaviour. Specific contingencies can be put in place for situations that might trigger problematic patterns of behaviour. For example, agreements can be made as to how and when to obtain explanations about cancelled or postponed contacts. It may be helpful to identify a trusted adult in each parent’s social network who can negotiate on behalf of each parent. This can then help moderate each parent’s responses and allow them to mentalizc themselves, their child and the ex-partner more effectively.

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