Divorced Parents Disagree About Children's Health Care

Theola Labbe-DeBose and Elayne Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer; Marriage and Family Therapist
Tuesday, April 14, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post staff writer Theola Labbe-DeBose and therapist Elayne Savage were online Tuesday, April 14 at noon ET to discuss what happens when divorced parents disagree about a child's health care, and how they can resolve the dispute.

Elayne Savage is a family and marriage therapist and the author of "Breathing Room: Creating Space to Be a Couple."


Theola Labbe-DeBose: Hi all, I'm just getting in from another assignment but I can't wait to get to your questions. Thanks for your patience.


Silver Spring, Md.: What do you do when there is no amiability at all? My sister's ex doesn't even want to pay child support, doesn't want his son to see a psychiatrist and get his meds (because he saw on the Internet it might have long-term effects, so instead of working with the doctor, he just thinks he should stop taking it), didn't even want to pay for a real dentist to have their cavities filled (he thought they should go to the Baltimore dental school). Everything is a confrontation with him and I expect it will just get worse as the years go on.

Elayne Savage: You just provided a very good example of the extent of this problem. How a child's health and well-being can suffer when there is stubbornness and animosity.

It is important that it be dealt with now. Yes, it could get worse as the years go on.

Perhaps it is time to use the services of a professional counselor or mediator to help them navigate through this.

Sometimes when there is this kind of stubbornness, medical and or psychological needs of the child are being neglected. Medical neglect refers to untreated serious physical or psychological illness or injury. Is there a possibility the child's needs might be neglected to this extent?

Theola Labbe-DeBose: Silver Spring, I can hear your frustration. What you can do as a support for your sister is get her to focus on all the things that she can do herself to work on this issue. She can't change him, but what can she do on her own that can help move things forward?


Theola Labbe-DeBose: Elayne, one thing I wondered, as I was reporting this story, was what kind of expectation parents in this situation should expect doctors and medical professionals to play. On the one hand, the offices could be helpful in contacting both parents or understanding a family's custody situation. On the other hand, the doctor shouldn't be in the middle of two parents fighting--their responsiblity is to the patient-- the child.


Elayne Savage: Doctors and nurses can play an important role without getting in the middle. Having a heart to heart talk with the parents about the importance of responsibility to medical needs of the child. The doctor can suggest using a professional mediator or counselor so that the child's need don't get neglected.


Chevy Chase, MD: I have to remark about the first poster - I am a long time patient of the University of Maryland Dental School, the student practice and the faculty practice. I've received excellent care there, and the dentists, are "real dentists". The students practice with instructors who have masters and beyond. Don't feel that their care will be substandard - the UMB Dental School is one of the top ones in the country. My implants are still going strong after 6 years.

Theola Labbe-DeBose: Thanks, Chevy Chase, that was one person's opinion being reported second/third-hand.


Silver Spring Again: They have not yet gone to court, so we're hoping to have something built in to make this easier.

Her son is being taken care of - the psychiatrist has been helpful in navigating the situation, but the main problem is her ex doesn't really care about his children, this is simply a power play to him. Therefore, we also have the added problem of the psychological damage it does to the children, which I don't believe was mentioned in your article

Theola Labbe-DeBose: It is extremely sad if the child feels that of his parents does not care about them, which of course is damaging. Has your sister written down all of the things-- at least healthwise -- that she would like to see happen? And then maybe sending it to the child's father as a way to get him to engage that topic? I've talked to separated parents who use lists and even write down things like, "I will give you 5 days notice for any doctor's appointment." When you write it out like that, it can sometimes take some of the emotion out of it.

Elayne Savage: It's important that the mother be clear and direct about what she needs the father to do. Writing it is a good idea. for clarity.

"This is what I need? Can you do this? Or what part can you do?

Look at it this way: you will both always be parents to your children.

Their fist day of school, when they graduate from grade school, from middle school, from high school, from college. If the get married and have their own children. Then you will both be the grandparents to your grandchildren.

You'll both be called upon to use some teamwork now and again.

Long-term consequences of these negative parental attitudes are common. I see lots of adults in their 20's and 30's and 40's who are still recovering from the effects of mishandled divorces when they were children.


Theola Labbe-DeBose: Many people I talked to cited counseling and mediation as being helpful to their situation. But the reality is one person may not want to go. And some couples want to try and work things out between themselves first, before going the route of an outside person. For those parents, the tips from a real-life Maryland couple might be very handy.



Theola Labbe-DeBose: I think we are getting ready to wrap things up here. You can reach me at labbet@washpost.com with any more feedback. Thanks, all.


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