• Suicidal Thoughts in Twin Teenage Girls During a Custody Battle Five Years After “Finalizing” A Divorce

    A divorce is like an amputation: You survive it, but there is less of you.

    - Margaret Atwood

  • Suicidal Thoughts in Twin Teenage Girls During a Custody Battle Five Years After “Finalizing” A Divorce

    We were contacted by an attorney to evaluate and treat twin teenage girls in the midst of a suicidal crisis, precipitated by an escalating battle for custody by their mother and father. Despite the fact that their parents had divorced five years earlier, and sole custody had been awarded to the girls’ father, mother had recently remarried and had hired a new attorney to aggressively pursue her being awarded sole custody. At the time the girls presented for treatment, they were suffering from depression, anxiety, trouble attending school, suicidal feelings, and withdrawing from their friends. One of the twins was clearly faring worse than the other, and had dropped out of school entirely. Both twins complained of insomnia, nightmares, panic attacks, and difficulties getting along with their father. Each expressed strong feelings that they wanted to live with their mother.

    The girls began individual psychotherapy and were treated with antidepressant medication. As we explored the origins of their emotional problems, it was apparent that their father, a former college lacrosse star, was overly invested in the girls playing competitive lacrosse in high school. He would coach them on the weekends, which at times they would enjoy, yet at other times they felt that he worked them too hard and was overly demanding. He would not infrequently lecture them on the value of hard work in the classroom and on the playing field, and these “lectures” could reportedly go on for over an hour. What emerged was that his heart was coming from a good place, but the girls felt intimidated by his aggressive tone. Complicating matters, the girls’ mother openly disparaged their father in front of them, and told them that he had a history of domestic violence against her, which demoralized them and brought into their minds memories and feelings about the stormy divorce proceedings five years earlier. It added to their feeling unsafe in living with their father. Mother pleaded with them to come live with her and their stepfather, and would entice the girls with offers of greater freedom, the latest designer clothes, and more relaxed rules in the home compared to the strict rules they lived under with their father. To help address the underlying family conflicts, we held family therapy sessions with the girls and their father, separate ones with the girls and their mother, and occasional conjoint meetings with the girls and both parents.

    The girls began individual psychotherapy and were treated with antidepressant medication. As we explored the origins of their emotional problems, it was apparent that their father, a former college lacrosse star, was overly invested in the girls playing competitive lacrosse in high school. He would coach them on the weekends, which at times they would enjoy, yet at other times they felt that he worked them too hard and was overly demanding. He would not infrequently lecture them on the value of hard work in the classroom and on the playing field, and these “lectures” could reportedly go on for over an hour. What emerged was that his heart was coming from a good place, but the girls felt intimidated by his aggressive tone. Complicating matters, the girls’ mother openly disparaged their father in front of them, and told them that he had a history of domestic violence against her, which demoralized them and brought into their minds memories and feelings about the stormy divorce proceedings five years earlier. It added to their feeling unsafe in living with their father. Mother pleaded with them to come live with her and their stepfather, and would entice the girls with offers of greater freedom, the latest designer clothes, and more relaxed rules in the home compared to the strict rules they lived under with their father. To help address the underlying family conflicts, we held family therapy sessions with the girls and their father, separate ones with the girls and their mother, and occasional conjoint meetings with the girls and both parents.

    What ensued over the next three years was a long and complicated clinical course. While mother was invited to attend sessions and initially agreed to do so, she was unreliable and would show up sporadically. Separate meetings were held with her to explore the reasons for her resistance, and she was found to be an extremely beautiful, highly narcissistic, and somewhat histrionic woman. She continued to attend family sessions sporadically, and demonstrated a clear pattern of avoiding emotional conflicts. Their father attended treatment faithfully, and learned how to more effectively communicate with his daughters, tone down his anger, and enter their world in a way that he truly listened to their concerns. Despite all of this positive work in individual therapy and conjoint sessions with their father, the girls continued to want to live with their mother.

    During the course of the evaluation and treatment, we uncovered significant findings with respect to their mother’s underlying emotional state. In addition to her suffering from a borderline personality disorder, it was determined that she had lied repeatedly regarding her history.

    What also emerged after about a year of therapy with the girls was that just prior to initiating the custody battle, their mother had threatened that if they did not return to live with her, “life might not be worth living.” As small children, they had once discovered her lying comatose in bed after having taken an overdose of medication, so this threat was quite real. They had been terrified to reveal their mother’s more recent threat, the history of her prior overdose, and their fears that if they chose to remain with their father they might be responsible for her death. They felt terribly trapped in an impossible situation, which had ushered in their feelings of depression and wanting to commit suicide.

    Once these issues were revealed and worked through, the girls confronted their mother and said they refused to live with her. Reluctantly, the twins’ mother agreed to drop her demands for custody. The girls felt enormously relieved! They continued to visit her every other weekend (and she made no further suicide attempts, all along the threat was just an attempt to manipulate them).

    The twins adjusted well to living with their father, were looking forward to attending college, and became star players on the lacrosse team, delighting in their father cheering them on from the sidelines.

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