Custody Issues

The prospect of any changes to our relationships with our children is, understandably, distressing. This is an issue many people face during the process of separation or divorce, when custody arrangements must be negotiated. Yet, it is important for the child’s wellbeing that a compromised plan is reached for their ongoing custody and support.

Aside from worry about the child and what it means for the future, negotiating custody can be time-consuming, entail stressful legal proceedings and fees, high conflict with the other parent, and mental health challenges. It can be difficult for you and your child to adjust to any changes in your relationships.

When the challenges associated with custody issues become especially prolonged or intense, they can lead to symptoms of common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. During this stressful time, it can be helpful to seek therapy for additional support.

Data from the 2016 Current Population Survey (CPS) indicates that (1):

  • More than one-quarter (around 27%) of all children under 21 years of age lived in families with only one of their parents while the other parent lived elsewhere.
  • Of these families, almost one-third were in poverty. This financial strain is an additional stressor that may contribute to mental health problems.

This data suggests that many people have to negotiate custody issues and related challenges. Divorce and separation are associated with increased anxiety and depression, and increased risk of alcohol abuse (2). Another study found that mothers who lost custody of their children were at higher risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse compared to mothers dealing with the death of a child (3).

Divorce and separation are also associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents (4, 5). Parental mental health can also impact on the wellbeing of children, compounding their vulnerability during the process of separation and custody changes.

People react in different ways when faced with stressful situations like child custody. Some of the common mental health challenges include:  

  • Anxiety: You may feel anxious or be preoccupied with worry about your child. You may find it hard to relax or concentrate on other things.
  • Depression: Changes to your relationship with your child may leave you feeling sad, hopeless or depressed.
  • Anger: It’s common for people to feel angry and irritable when custody arrangements change. Some people feel that they have lost control of their child, or feel that decisions are unfair or unjust.
  • Stress: Custody issues are understandably stressful. People may feel tense, have difficulty sleeping, or experience other symptoms of stress.
  • Relationship problems: It’s common for custody issues to arise in the context of relationship issues, such as a separation from the other parent or custodian of the child. The separation process is not always smooth and amicable. For some, it can be a time of high conflict.
  • Social withdrawal: Some people tend to pull back from family and friends when going through periods of high stress.
  • Guilt: You may feel guilty, shame, or like you are to blame for the situation.
  • Identity and sense of self: Your relationship with your child may change by varying degrees, which can cause a change in your identity.

Types of custody issues

  • Divorce or separation: It’s not uncommon for custody of a child to become an issue that arises during the process of separation or divorce. You can read more about challenges related to separation or divorce here.
  • Conflict with the other parent or custodian of the child: It is common for there to be conflict between parents/custodians regarding what will be best for the child. Understandably, it is upsetting for a parent to be separated from their child.
  • Going through legal proceedings to determine custody of the child: This can be time-consuming, confusing, costly, and stressful for both you and your child.
  • The wellbeing of the child: Changes in custody, time with parents, relationships, living arrangements, and moving are all issues that impact on the mental health of children too. It can be a particularly stressful and confusing time for children.
  • Balancing other responsibilities with legal proceedings: It can be stressful to be balancing the demands of everyday life with negotiating custody arrangements and any legal proceedings.
  • Adjusting to loss or reduced custody: Any major changes or stressful events are likely to involve intense emotions. It takes time for us to adjust.
  • Noncompliance with custody requirements: Occasionally, one party may not comply with court-mandated custody arrangements. This can cause stress and requires time to problem solve and resolve without causing additional distress to the child.
  • Communicating with the other parent or custodian of the child: Particularly if a divorce or separation has not been amicable, communicating with the other parent can be distressing. It’s important for parents to communicate and cooperate to some extent. For example, often both parents need to be involved in making decisions about the child’s future.
  • Financial stress: Working through child custody usually involves legal fees, and often also involves navigating the financial implications of a separation or divorce from the other parent.

What to do if you experience custody issues

There are many things you can do to look after yourself and the wellbeing of your child. This is important, in order to work towards the best future outcomes for you all. Consider a combination of the following:

  • Therapy: Therapy can be a helpful way to work on understanding your custody issues and develop strategies for dealing with any related mental health challenges. Depending on your particular challenges, you may work with a therapist on your own, with your child, or perhaps with the parent/custodian of the child in couples therapy. Custody issues can be stressful and confusing for your child. They too may benefit from individual therapy with a specialized child therapist, such as a child psychologist. Types of therapy to consider are discussed further, below.
  • Self-care: Pay attention to your diet, try to get sleep and rest, and exercise regularly.
  • Talk to family and friends: Many people will feel like withdrawing at a time like this, yet family and friends are an important source of social support, which can, in turn, affect our wellbeing. Experts also recommend that it is generally best if you try to keep an open channel of communication with the other parent.
  • Legal advice or representation: If you have any concerns, it’s best to seek advice and support from a legal professional.
  • Support groups: Many people experiencing custody issues benefit from joining a support group. Sharing experiences and learning from people in similar situations can be encouraging and helps people to feel that they are not alone.
  • Attend a parent education program: The Center for Divorce Education parenting class can help you learn how to help your child through the process, and is sometimes a requirement of custody agreements.
  • Helplines: If you need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255, or go the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. If you are experiencing abuse in your relationship, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you think a child is in danger or at risk, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.

Therapy types to consider

There are a number of different types of therapy that you could consider for yourself and your child for challenges associated with custody issues. Therapy types include:

  • Couples or family therapy: Couples therapy can help to resolve conflict in the relationship between you and the child’s other parent. It may help to facilitate a working relationship and open communication between you both in the future. It can also be helpful for all family members to be involved to explore how all parties are feeling, coping, and to seek resolutions together.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors and help people to form a more balanced perspective of their circumstances. CBT can also help adults and children with mental health symptoms associated with custody and separation issues, such as anxiety or depression.
  • Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness helps people to be aware more aware of thoughts and sensations without automatically reacting to them.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT involves components of CBT, mindfulness and other strategies to help people to cope with mental health challenges.

What to look for in a therapist for challenges associated with custody issues

The best-fitting type of therapist will depend on individual factors, symptoms, your location and finances. You’ll want to consider whether you are seeking therapy for yourself, your child, both, or even perhaps with the child’s other parent. When selecting a mental health professional, it can be helpful to consider the following factors:

Personal fit

When you are seeking therapy for any reason, it’s important to consider the potential for developing a strong working relationship with your therapist. The trusting working relationship with a therapist is called the therapeutic alliance, and it’s the number one indicator of treatment efficacy.

Qualifications and experience

It is important to look for a licensed mental health professional. This ensures that the therapist you work with has undertaken the appropriate education and training. You might want to look for a therapist who specializes in family systems, or working with children, for example.

Talk in advance

The best way to judge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to oblige. This gives you the opportunity to ask about:

  • Their qualifications
  • Their experience working with people who are going through custody issues
  • Any ongoing training they are participating in that relates to custody and separation issues
  • What type of therapy they suggest for mental health challenges related to custody issues, and what that will be like
  • Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy

Try to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.

Sources and references