Robin Watts | Counseling in High Conflict Custody Cases

Today on the Texas Family Law Insiders podcast, we welcome guest Robin Watts. Robin is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Parenting Facilitator and Parenting Coordinator, and an expert in Reunification Therapy.

One thing that can most negatively affect children’s development is high conflict between their parents. Robin joins us on the show today to discuss how forensic counseling can be useful in these types of divorce and custody cases. Listen as she walks us through:

  • Family systems therapy and reunification therapy—what’s the difference, what’s the process, and when is it effective
  • What are the essential differences between destructive and constructive conflict and how each can create change
  • Parent coordinators and parent facilitators, what do they do, and what’s the difference between them
  • What are some indicators that these services are needed, and when should they begin
  • And much more

Mentioned in this episode:


Robin Watts: Despite what people think conflict can actually be good for a relationship because if one has the skills to be able to share their thoughts and feelings in a productive way, it can create some change in the relationship that can make the relationship healthier.

Voiceover: You’re listening to the Texas Family Law Insiders podcast, your source for the latest news and trends in family law in the state of Texas. Now, here’s your host attorney Holly Draper.

Holly Draper: Today we’re excited to welcome Robin Watts to the Texas Family Law Insiders podcast. Robin is a licensed professional counselor, parent educator, collaborative divorce mental health professional, parenting facilitator and coordinator, reunification therapist and certified sex addiction therapist. She has a Bachelor’s degree in education, a Master’s in Counseling and development and is working on a doctoral degree. She’s the co founder and Vice President of the Texas Association of Family Forensics, serves on the Board of Trustees for Collaborative Divorce Texas, is a member of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, and is the clinical member of the Denton County Drug Court Treatment Plan. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Robin: Thank you for having me.

Holly: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Robin: Sure. Well, this is actually a second career for me being a therapist. My bachelor’s degree is in elementary education. And I spent the first 20 years post bachelor’s degree of hardcore adulting as a preschool teacher, and director of a preschool program at my church. But my main job at the time was raising my kiddos. So I was fortunate enough to be able to stay home with them for a good chunk of time when they were younger, and also be involved and productive by working as a preschool teacher.

So they’re all grown and flown now, I’m happy to say and have college degrees and are paying their own bills. But when my eldest turned 16, and I had a driver, I went back to school and enrolled at TWU to receive a master’s degree in counseling and development. And so I worked a couple of years in the substance use realm, I did my internship at Sante Center for Healing. And so that transitioned into a lot of work around substance use and addiction, which I love. I have not, I am not in recovery for any substance use issues, but I have family members that were affected by some of those issues.

So I wanted to learn more about that and found that it was a really good fit for me and working with that population. But as the universe will have it, there was a different plan for me. And so almost 10 years ago when I was leasing space and also working at Sante Center for Healing, but leasing space with a colleague, she started to talk to me about collaborative divorces, and how as a mental health professional in that process, she was able to facilitate transitions for families experiencing separation or divorce in a much healthier manner than what we traditionally think of when we think of people getting a divorce. And so she invited me to a luncheon that was hosted by the Denton County Collaborative Divorce Practice Group.

And my interest was sparked. And so I enrolled in a basic interdisciplinary training, and then also went back to school again, but this time at UNT in their alternative dispute resolution track and completed classes in negotiation mediation and family negotiation. And so as a result of working as a mental health professional in the collaborative realm, I started to receive appointments from family law attorneys in my practice group for services for their clients.

Individual services, co parenting services, therapy for kiddos, parenting facilitation, coordination. And so over the last eight years, then my practice has grown to primarily be forensic, which means my all of my clients, that 98, 99% of my clients are involved with the courts either in a collaborative divorce process or in a traditional litigated process. So although I never really set out to work in the court, as part of my work with the collaborative practice group outside of the courts, it’s that’s what it’s transitioned to.

Holly: Can you explain exactly what it means when you use the term forensic in this context? I was actually having a discussion with a colleague earlier this week, and she and I both had a very different understanding of what that means. So how would you explain it?

Robin: Well, so in the context that I work forensically with high conflict families that are experiencing separation or divorce, it means that I work primarily with the courts. And one of the big difference in working as a forensic professional and a traditional clinician, is that you are really answering to the court in a, in a forensic role. A forensically trained or forensically informed mental health professional has received specialized and relevant or applicable training about the dynamics that can occur for parents when they are trying to share in the duties of raising children between two homes.

Holly: So what is the difference in a treating expert, court appointed treating expert, and a traditional therapist?

Robin: Okay, that’s a great question. So I think the first and perhaps one of the biggest differences between the two is the identification of who the client is. The client slash litigant and who you’re working for. So in a court appointed role as a treating expert, the therapist is answering to the court. And the court order defines the expectation for the mental health professional services, although the court gives us the latitude to, to do our thing, and how to conduct the services.

But you are required to stay in your role to stay in your lane, and to know enough about the legal system to be able to interact effectively with the attorneys and the judges and potentially a gal or an amicus attorney and, and all of the other people that you need to collaborate with in a litigated process, but to avoid trying to be somebody’s lawyer. So it’s knowing your role, staying you’re in your lane, and providing the service that you are asked to provide so that the court can make a good decision for this family.

Holly: We were just talking about forensic trained versus court appointed. And since this podcast is geared towards family lawyers, you know oftentimes we find ourselves in a position of recommending counseling to our clients or for the children in a particular case. What should we think about when considering sending them to a forensically trained therapist, as opposed to whoever’s on their insurance? Or something like that?

Robin: That’s a great question. That is a really good question. And that could be a whole podcast, podcast just in and of itself. You want to make sure that you are sending your clients to the professional that is trained to meet the needs that you are wanting, met. So this is the analogy that I often share with, with attorneys or parents in my office. Say, for example, your kiddo is riding their bike, and they fall off their bike, and oh, goodness, they break their arm. Well, you’re not going to scoop your kiddo up and take them to the dentist. You’re going to scoop your kiddo up, and you’re going to take them probably to the emergency room where an orthopedic doctor will look at their arm, or you may take them to an orthopedic doctor, I don’t know. I mean, I think we took our kids to the emergency room when they broke their arms, but we did not take them to their dentist. And it’s the same thing.

Even though you have two highly skilled, highly trained professionals, their education and relevant training focuses on different issues or different problems. And it’s the same thing with clinicians who are providing traditional psychotherapy versus forensic services. So as a forensically informed, or a a forensic clinician that works primarily with the court, all of my training for the most part is about high conflict family dynamics, and parent child contact problems and conflicts, and constructive and destructive conflict behaviors and alignment issues and enmeshment, and adultification and parentification and all of these things that we see play out.

And then there’s complex dynamics at play for families that are getting a separation or a divorce. So the training is different. The professionals may be very, very, both very qualified, but you have to have the training that meets the needs of your client. Otherwise, a well intended clinician can make things worse for a family and worse for those children.

Holly: And oftentimes, I find the more traditional non forensic therapist really does not want to be subpoenaed to testify in court. They want to stay out of it.

Robin: Usually, unless they have drank the Kool Aid, so to speak, and they are determined to advocate for their client. And unfortunately, that does happen. And one of the things that we know as a forensically informed professional is that you have lots of perspectives that you need to consider. If you’re only treating one piece of the puzzle or one piece of the family system. You have this very narrow view of what’s happening in this family and what could be contributing to the conflict. So it’s important to have a balanced perspective, and even if you are just the individual, traditional therapist, just because your client says it doesn’t mean it’s so.

And I think as forensic professionals, we’re trained to, sometimes, oftentimes, actually, let me say this to confront our clients on some of their distorted thinking. And in traditional psychotherapy, we’re trained to validate, and we do that in in forensic cases as well. But we don’t, I don’t know that we challenge as much as we should in just that traditional model, as opposed to in the forensic model, when we’re wanting to challenge these people and create some change, because what they’re doing isn’t working for them and their families.

Holly: So today, we’re here primarily to talk about issues related to high conflict divorce and high conflict custody cases. So can you generally describe for us how high conflict parents can negatively impact their children’s development?

Robin: Sure I can. That’s a great question as well. So I’m a family systems therapist, which means I’m trained systemically to understand that family relationships are interdependent. And what that means is what happens in one relationship can spill over to affect relationships in other domains. So take, for example, you have high conflict co parents that are in a contested custody battle, or they’re having some kind of issues in court over decisions related to how they’re sharing their kiddos. Their conflict can spill over and affect the parent child relationship.

And kiddos can get caught in the middle and develop an alignment or pick a side and reject or refuse to have contact with a parent that they once enjoyed a healthy relationship with. And this can also extend to relationships with grandparents, and aunts, uncles and pets, to things. Kiddos can reject things that a no longer favored parent likes just to make a point because they’ve picked aside. And what the literature tells us is children that have become triangulated into conflict is one of the most detrimental things that can happen to them in their childhood, and it has adverse outcomes for children in this in the social, emotional and developmental realm.

Holly: You mentioned family systems therapy. And I had a case or situation one time where the attorneys were talking about reunification therapy, and a mental health professional was suggesting family systems therapy, and kind of got on to us about calling it reunification therapy. Can you talk about the difference or how those two are alike? What the difference is?

Robin: Well, so potato potahto. Reunification therapy is family systems therapy. And reunification therapy was actually something that we’ve kind of stolen from the CPS model of reintegrating or reunifying children with estranged parents. And it’s just a process where you work with each parent individually, you work with the child and you start to try to change some of those unhealthy dynamics that have created a parent child contact problem. And that’s what reunification therapy is. There’s not a specific certification for it.

There’s some training, my forensic group, we’re having a training in April. Some of my colleagues do an advanced reunification training quarterly, I believe there’s some stuff on the internet, AFCC has provided some training. So it’s a modality of therapy, but it is family systems therapy. And people throw those terms around interchangeably, but it is family systems reunification therapy, because what the literature tells us is that to really be effective as a reunification reintegration therapist, you have to be able to work with both parents, because you have to have buy in from both parents.

I mean, we we get these kiddos in our office for such a short amount of time. And we don’t have the same kind of influence over them that their parents do, particularly if they have developed an alignment and have dug their heels in as a teenager and nobody’s going to change their mind. Their parents are the ones that really we have to work to create change. So that can trickle down to the kiddos.

Holly: Is there such a thing as constructive conflict between parents?

Robin: Oh, there is definitely such a thing as constructive conflict. And to clarify, when I’m talking about constructive conflict, I’m talking about conflict behaviors and conflict language. And so constructive conflict is characterized by the ability to consider multiple perspectives, which requires one to think flexibly to listen for understanding to be able to validate another person’s feelings and to try to understand the reality, even though you may see it very differently. It is a process of intention, and despite what people think, conflict can actually be good for a relationship.

Because if one has the skills to be able to share their thoughts and feelings in a productive way, it can create some change in the relationship that could make the relationship healthier. So conflict isn’t necessarily bad, particularly if it’s constructive conflict. But if you’ve got constructive conflict, and you’ve got destructive conflict, which is typically what I’m working with, in my office, and then you have, you know, everything in between, but constructive conflict looks like blame, accusations, judgments, criticism, contempt, aggressive behaviors, and language.

And we know that intense emotions create escalated and extreme behaviors. And when people start to engage in destructive conflict tactics, they often lose sight of the consequences of what their behaviors in language will bring for them. And they have moved out of the connection zone. And the connection zone is where learning conversations occur, and where people can stay grounded and problem solve. And if they have been taught appropriate skills and language, they can apply those to reach some kind of resolution to their problem.

Holly: What kind of advice did you give family lawyers if we are recognizing that there is destructive conflict happening between the parties?

Robin: Well, that’s another good question. I think a piece of advice for lawyers that I would give is to model constructive conflict behaviors to your clients. Because we know from the neuroscientific research out there that behaviors are contagious. And from the research on mirror neurons, we know that our brains are wired to mimic what other people do. Think about our children when they’re little, mommy’s pushing the baby in the stroller, little girls want to push their babies in the stroller or daddy’s or whatever daddy’s do, man stuff, you know, and the little boys are mimicking that.

Or it might be the little girls mimicking vice versa. I mean, but that those are learned behaviors. And I think if attorneys are encouraging their clients to use constructive conflict tactics, and how you know, constructive conflict resolution skills and modeling that, that doesn’t mean that you’re still not advocating for your client. That just means that you’re doing it in a respectful way. And and sometimes you might lose clients, because clients seek particular attorneys they know are hard chargers in court. And and I think that you can still be a hard charger and do it in respectful way.

Holly: Yeah, I think also in the way that we deal with opposing attorneys. Oftentimes our very destructive conflict clients want us to treat opposing counsel in a similar way. And they can get frustrated when they see us toning it down or making it a much more amicable conversation. But hopefully, we are always trying to get our clients to de escalate the situation.

Robin: Well, and when I see somebody in my office, and they start to give me their history, and they’ve gone through four attorneys, I know that likely they’re looking for an attorney that will tell them what they want to hear. And so I walk this fine line, I’ve tried to create rapport with people, but to tell them that it’s probably not your attorney, that’s the problem. It’s probably you. And some people may or may not be willing to hear that. Fortunately, when I have a court order that has prompted somebody to walk through my door, the for them, they have to listen to some things that maybe they don’t want to listen to initially.

And if I can share that information with them in a way that comes across as supportive and helpful instead of shaming or critical, which is what I tried to do, obviously, they may be more likely to hear it and some people just aren’t ready. They they want to scorch the earth. And I tried to tell parents that you might scorch the earth and you might think that you’ve won in the courtroom, but what have you done to your kids? And what are your children remembering about their childhood? You’re essentially stealing their childhood from them. So I need you to love your kids more than you love yourself right now.

Holly: And love your kids more than you hate the other side.

Robin: Absolutely. And that’s hard for some people to stay out of their egos to be able to do that. And so there’s obviously really delicate, careful ways that I teach skills and give this information to parents. But I do occasionally step on some toes. And that’s just the reality of working with the court system with people that walk in my office that that may be angry before they even know who who they’re court ordered to see.

Holly: So one of the things that you’d mentioned to me in preparing for this podcast was that there’s a theory behind conflict management behaviors. Can you talk about that?

Robin: Sure. So what you’re talking about is known in the clinical world as polyvagal theory. And it’s a theory that we use to conceptualize conflict behaviors, and how we emotionally and behaviorally regulate. Nobody really wants to hear about polyvagal theory. So the way I talk to my clients and other people about polyvagal theory is the fight, flight or freeze response. And so there’s really three responses there. There’s the fight, flight, freeze response, there’s, and the connection response, which is the window of tolerance. So the fight or flight response is a place of hyper arousal of mobilization. It’s a very visible place of being emotionally and behaviorally dysregulated.

The fight flight response can look like people yelling, and calling people names, running, pacing, hitting, shoving. It’s a survival mode that is regulated by our sympathetic nervous system, which has overtaken our brain’s ability to understand that there are some big consequences for these big behaviors. And so another, another state is the freeze or the collapse response. And the freeze response is a place of hypo arousal that is regulated by our parasympathetic nervous system. And this can look like withdrawing, isolation, numbing out, dissociative behaviors. It can look like avoidance.

This is when people check out of conversations, or check out of relationships. And so since you were talking today about high conflict separation and divorces, what may actually be an adaptive coping mechanism, I need to avoid because this feels too intense and too scary for me, is often pathologized in the courtroom, or it’s attempted to be pathologized. And so part of my task at the onset of services is to help parents and their children to understand that sometimes people going through divorce have some crazy behaviors. Some behaviors that to the rest of us do not make sense. It’s because they are likely in the fight, flight or freeze.

That doesn’t mean that somebody has a mental health issue or a disorder. Often, these issues will calm down for people a couple of years after divorce. That’s what the literature says is that most people will calm down, some people don’t. But I try at the beginning to help people understand how and why people are responding, so that we can move into what I call the place of or the window of tolerance, or a place of social connection or engagement. And this is where the learning conversations can occur, and where people can be reasonable and curious, and start to understand that there’s consequences for me and my children, financially, emotionally and developmentally for the decisions and behaviors that I’m engaging in and bringing my children into.

So having those learning conversations requires that we we stay grounded, and we can do a self check to know that we’re about to lose it. And this being in the window of tolerance allows us to be aware of self, of others, of time and space, and to stay in our prefrontal lobes where we can engage in those difficult conversations that you have to have when you’re sharing children between two homes.

Holly: So one of the things that I know you do is parenting facilitation and parenting coordination. Can you talk a little bit about what those are and the difference between the two?

Robin: Sure. A parenting facilitator and a parenting coordinator have very similar duties, but what they can do outside of their office is very different. So the primary difference is that parenting facilitation is a non confidential process, whereas parenting coordination is a confidential process. So as a parenting facilitator, I submit status updates to the court, I can have meetings with attorneys, I may be called to testify in court about how well the parents are behaving or not behaving in my office. As a parenting coordinator, I can still submit a status update to the court, but it can only basically say whether I believe services should continue or not, or whether they’re working or not. So so the parenting coordination role is very limited.

And that’s the role that I typically usually fulfill as a mental health professional in the collaborative divorce process. Because one of the things that we offer divorcing parents is the process to circle back around later after some time has changed and feelings and behaviors have become more regulated and manageable, to make some decisions about their children that they may not know that they didn’t need to make. So for both of those roles, you have to have some basic education, you have to have a bachelor’s degree in counseling, family studies, psychology, social work, or a graduate degree in a mental health profession, or you have to be an attorney in good standing in the state of Texas.

So in addition to those basic qualifications, you also have to have eight hours of family violence dynamics training provided by a family violence service provider, 24 classroom hours of training in the field of family dynamics, child development, family law, and in the law governing those roles and procedures, and then 40 classroom hours of alternative dispute resolution training in a course, that has been approved by the court.

So I love parenting facilitation and parenting coordination, because at the root of what I see, most often, particularly even with reunification therapy, in some of these family therapy services that I’m tasked to, to provide for families is the parents are really the ones that need the help, and if the parents can get on the same page and learn some skills and learn some education to behave in a way that’s more productive and helpful. And some of the education circling back to polyvagal theory about why they do what they do. They can get on a different trajectory, and maybe their kiddos don’t need to be in counseling their whole childhood and most of their adulthood.

Holly: When do you think we should be recommending to our clients or asking for the court to order parenting facilitation or coordination, as opposed to some other type of therapy environment?

Robin: Immediately. As soon as you can. And I’ve talked to some of the judges here in Denton County about, gosh, we need these people early. We need these people early in the process of divorce, before all of these problems become so big, that it’s really hard to resolve for these families and fractures to important relationships have been damaged that that may never recover. Sometimes they do, but but sometimes they don’t. So the earlier the better.

Holly: So what what should we be looking for in our clients as candidates for parenting facilitation or coordination. Is everybody who’s going through a divorce with kids or a child custody case, a good candidate?

Robin: I think a child custody case is absolutely a good candidate. And I often get lots of parenting facilitation, or frequent parenting facilitation cases where they’re also going through a custody evaluation, or they’re contemplating it. And what I tell parents is you can learn some stuff in here, and you can make some agreements in here and you may not both get your way. But if you can focus what is what is best for your child and identify some issues that we can work on and come up with something that is, is helpful to both of you, that doesn’t mean somebody wins, and somebody loses, then you can maybe move back into a place where you’re making the decisions for your family. Because in the custody evaluation, somebody else is going to make those decisions for you. And you may not like how they turn out.

Holly: I know one of the other things that you offer is parent education. Can you talk about what that looks like in contrast to therapy, and how that can help parents minimize conflict?

Robin: Sure, I would love to. As a parent educator, I’m teaching parents about some of the things that we’ve already talked about and why they do what they do, but also different ways of communicating and interacting with each other which allow them to problem solve and to co parent together effectively. In my office, I use the new ways for families in separation or divorce succession curriculum, developed by Bill Eddy with the High Conflict Institute. And in that curriculum, we continue to build from session one to session six on all of, a lot of the things that we’ve talked about today plus many more.

I mean, we set the goals we talk about what’s constructive, what’s destructive, how emotions are contagious, how feelings aren’t decisions, and if you make a decision from a place of big feelings, it’s likely a decision you will regret. I see folks in my office that are getting divorces that they really don’t want because somebody has made a big decision from a place of big feelings and now nobody’s ego ego will let them change their mind. So I love parent education. I’m an educator at heart. I was the the kid on the neighborhood who was teaching all my friends’ siblings how to read, torturing them with, with stuff. So at my heart, I am a teacher. And I love to provide parent education and help parents to become empowered to make better decisions for themselves.

Holly: When I started family law, it seemed like all the courts that I practiced in required some sort of parenting class. And that seems to have gone away for the most part in the counties where I practice. Do you think that’s something that attorneys should be recommending to all of their parent clients, even when it’s not court ordered?

Robin: I think so. I absolutely, I think even in the healthiest of relationships, conflict is inevitable. And so these parents that are getting divorces, for the first time with minor children, they often don’t know what they don’t know. So spend some time and money on the front end, to learn how to do things in a healthier way. And it may save you some time in court on the back end. And I’m a little biased here, in that I like the in person, curriculum, because I think we’re teaching parents skills, or maybe they’re learning skills on the internet, but they need the opportunity to practice them. They need the opportunity to be redirected. And for somebody to model a healthier way maybe to ask a question than then how they’re asking it. So I like that the practical part where they get to practice the skills that they’ve learned in parent education.

Holly: So we’re just about out of time, but one of the things I like to ask everybody who comes on the podcast is, if you could give one piece of advice to family lawyers, what would it be?

Robin: And I think you’ve already asked asked me that, and I’ve talked about it is to seek services early, seek services early, and seek services with a professional that is trained and qualified to provide the services that you need for your client. You may be able to find somebody that takes insurance. And there’s nothing wrong with people taking insurance. But when when a clinician utilizes insurance, then we have to give somebody a diagnosis. And as you know, in the court system, that could could look like a gotcha moment to the other side, if somebody is diagnosed with anxiety or, or depression or, or something even more egregious than that. So most of us that work primarily with the courts do not take insurance.

I mean, I’m sure there’s a handful that do, I don’t, and I don’t know many of my colleagues that do. But seek services early, find a professional that’s trained to provide the services that you need. And if you want to check that out and see if they really have the training that they say they have just asked for their resume or their CV. And if their last few trainings were, how to grow your telehealth practice and how to keep your therapy dog from biting the obnoxious kids in your office, that’s probably not the therapist for you. You want somebody that’s been going to the AFCC trainings and to some of the trainings that North Texas taff here in North Texas is providing and also our, our forensic group provides those trainings that are applicable to high conflict situations for separating or divorcing families.

Holly: So where can our listeners go if they want to learn more about you?

Robin: Well, so I marketing is not my strong suit. But I do have a website and it’s minimal. It’s But I do also have a business cell. And I would prefer that people just send me an email at [email protected] or give me a call on my business cell. I still screen all of my own calls. And I like to have the conversation with my clients before I agree to accept them and provide services in my office. Even if there is a court order. Sometimes I’m just not the right fit. Or somebody’s looking for me to do something that I’m just not willing to do which is see somebody’s children without consent of the other parent. So I do have an admin that handles some of my administrative tasks, but I still like to have that initial call with potential clients.

Holly: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. For our listeners, if you enjoyed this podcast, take a second to leave us a review and subscribe so you can enjoy future episodes.

Voiceover: The Texas Family Law Insiders podcast is sponsored by the Draper Law Firm. We help people navigate divorce and child custody cases and handle family law appellate matters. For more information, visit our website at

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