Often attorneys are the first person explaining reunification therapy to clients, and thus attorneys can play an important role in preparing their clients to be successful in the reunification therapy process. Reunification therapy is a form of family therapy, often court-ordered, used when a child or children refuse to spend time with one parent during separation or after divorce. Research has shown disrupted parent-child relationships have a negative impact on children of all ages. It may manifest through internalizing disorders (for example, anxiety and/or depression) or externalizing disorders (for instance, poor school achievement, behavioral problems, and/or substance abuse). Therefore, the goal of reunification therapy is to assist both parents with creating the healthiest possible relationship with their child, and supporting a healthy relationship between the child and the other parent, which will positively affect the children’s emotional development within the family system.
The way to prepare a client for being part of the reunification process is to provide education about their role in the family system and what the expectations are as either the ‘favored’ or ‘rejected’ parent, or the child. The favored parent is the one with whom the children want to spend time. Although the favored parent may have a lengthy history of reasons, perhaps justified, why the children should not spend time with the other parent, it is essential for the success of reunification therapy for this parent to buy into the therapy process. The therapist will work with the favored parent to help him/her prioritize the children’s emotional needs and manage their own emotional triggers, anger and behavior, as well as challenge their cognitive distortions and rigid thinking. The rejected (or disenfranchised/non-favored ) parent is the one with whom the children do not want to spend time. It is essential for the success of reunification therapy for the disenfranchised parent to be patient and to allow the children time to reconnect comfortably with them. The therapist will work with this parent to help him/her take responsibility for their own role in the parent-child contact problems, develop an accurate perception of their children and/or past parenting issues, and not externalize blame. Both parents are an important part of the reunification therapy process.
The reunification therapist helps both parents reduce their stress in response to the children’s anxious, fearful and/or angry responses to spending time with the rejected parent. The therapist also teaches both parents how to listen without reacting, respond in a welcoming way, accept small steps, engage in negotiation, not overly-focus on the court order, and be aware cooperation with the therapeutic process is conveyed both directly and indirectly.
It is also important for the child to understand the reunification therapy process and how it will affect them. The first goal is to prepare the child and the disenfranchised parent to have joint sessions. There is no standard number of sessions or time frame for this preparation, which may involve individual sessions with the child and each parent. Contact may begin with letters or Facetime/Skype sessions, then transition to joint sessions playing games or doing other activities together to set a framework for comfort before delving into deeper therapeutic issues. For others where readiness of the child is not a concern, joint therapy sessions can begin immediately. The ultimate goal of reunification therapy is to use therapy to work on healing the rift in the parent-child relationship. It is important for the child to understand the reunification therapist is there to ensure their emotional well-being, safety and happiness.
Reunification therapy begins when the therapist meets with each parent and child separately to gather background information from each individual’s perspective and to assess the needs of the family. The therapist will then determine on a case-by-case basis the best structure and process forward for the reunification team. That team may include individual therapists (to assist with the tasks noted above specific to favored versus non-favored parents) and/or a co-parenting therapist, in addition to the reunification therapist. The success of reunification therapy depends on the willingness of all participants to prioritize the children’s emotional needs and to be actively involved in the process.
Friedman, D., Schmidt, C.B., King, H.L., Warshak, R., & Webb, B.L. (2014) A systematic approach to reunification therapy. Presented at 2014 Innovations—Breaking Boundaries in Custody Litigation. Dallas, TX
Judge, A., & Deutsch, R. (Eds.), Overcoming parent-child contact problems: Family-based interventions for resistance, rejection, and alienation. (2016) New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Smith, L.S. (2016) Family-based therapy for parent-child reunification. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 72, 498-512
What Will Happen in Reunification Therapy? (2018) Lepage Associates