When a parent and child are estranged or separated because of a divisive divorce or custody fights, allegations of abuse, parental alienation, or the return to the home of a child who’d been removed, family members may be ordered by a court to attend—or seek out on their own—reunification therapy, an intensive practice with the goal of rebuilding trust and connection between parents and children.
A family could attend reunification therapy for a range of reasons. Most commonly, reunification therapy takes place during or following a contentious divorce, and a court orders reunification therapy to bring parent and child closer together.
In other cases, one parent may have been found guilty of domestic abuse or other crime and ordered by a court to stay away from their children for a time. After completing court-ordered therapy or other intervention or diversion program, they could petition to begin reunification therapy in order to restore their relationship with their children.
In some cases, if child-protective services has deemed a home unsafe for a child because of parental neglect, substance abuse, violence, or criminal activity, reunification therapy may take place before the child is allowed to return to the home from foster care. (In a smaller number of cases, reunification therapy takes place after a child has been removed from a home because of their own actions, such as the abuse of another child in the family.)
A child who has been separated from a parent, whether due to the parent's absence or their own removal from the home and placement in foster care, may act out in a range of ways due to feelings of insecurity and disorganization. They may feel torn between loyalties to one or both parents and possibly to their foster families as well. When a child’s negative reaction to a parent is driven by the other’s alienation, they may become resistant, increasingly hostile, and eventually altogether rejecting of the targeted parent, a primary challenge for a reunification therapist.
A parent whose child has been removed from their home or who has been court-ordered to stay away from a child for a certain length of time (pending completion of court-ordered classes, for example), may experience the shame of negative perceptions, real or imagined, of others in their extended family or community, as well as self-doubt about their ability to parent, along with the pain of being physically separated from a child and worries about the child’s feelings toward them.
When separation from a child is the result of parental alienation, a parent can experience severe stress, anger, anxiety, and even depression. The parent will often appear in court as less calm or stable than the alienating parent, which is one of the inherent challenges of winning support for a reunification program.
Sometimes, when parents divorce or otherwise split up, one will manipulate their child or children to refuse to have a relationship with the other. This form of emotional abuse, known as parental alienation, is typically achieved through lies or exaggerations about the other parent—that the parent has said they hate the child, that they’re responsible for the end of the marriage, or that they were abusive in some way. When alienation occurs, the targeted parent can challenge the other in court. Alienation is often challenging to prove, but when a parent can convince a judge that it has occurred, a court can mandate a reunification program, in which a child or children must spend time with the alienated parent, under supervision. Reunification programs also typically involve mandated family therapy to address the child or children’s trauma and to help them rebuild a connection to the alienated parent.
Reunification therapy has a clear, single goal: the re-establishment of connection between parent and child and the restoration of their roles within the family and/or between separated parental households. The therapist called upon to work with the parent and child may use a range of modalities and interventions to achieve goals including improved communication, and a restored sense of attachment within the family. The therapist remains a neutral third-party whose client is the family as a whole.
Along with the work conducted as a family in therapy sessions, one or both parents may undergo therapy as well. Children may also participate in reunification therapy in addition to individual therapy. In some cases in which a family is entering reunification after a parent’s abusive or criminal action, that parent may have to complete a period of therapy as a condition for starting a reunification program.
Reunification therapy is a child-focused therapy, meaning it must proceed at the child’s pace, and move forward when they have made progress. It can also be difficult as parents are asked to put aside their differences and focus on the goal of restoring healthy attachment for the benefit of the child or children. This could involve discussion in sessions about co-parenting guidelines and boundaries. A less-contentious relationship between parents, especially those who will have an ongoing co-parenting relationship, is a secondary but important benefit.
Reunification therapy sessions typically include both the child or children and the alienated parent; sessions that do not include the presence of the targeted parent are not only less successful but may only lead to further entrenchment of a child’s alienation. Time in therapy may include education sessions about family dynamics; these will typically focus on the child’s perspective and emphasize the child’s empowerment and ability to make decisions for themselves.
Family systems therapy is one commonly used type of therapy in reunification. It focuses on resolving problems within the context of the family unit by helping each member understand the group dynamic and how each of their actions and words can affect it. A core premise of the approach is that what happens to one member of a family happens to everyone in the family.
In sessions, each family member is given an opportunity to state their view of how they have been affected by the words or actions of the others. Together with the therapist, family members then work together to help each other resolve the strains they experience and better define and understand their particular roles within the family to restore a healthy family system.
As the therapist works to foster positive parent-child interaction, one common technique is to ask the parent to bring physical mementos of good times the two had together before separation. When memories of warmth or affection are acknowledged, the therapist may ask the child to list all of their negative beliefs about the parent, positively encouraging them to include everything they can think of.
The therapist can then read through the list with the child, asking for specific examples of the parent’s flaws or failings. When they’re done, the therapist will go back over the list, asking the child to remember times when the parent behaved in the opposite way, and then ask the parent themselves to add positive examples. Without rejecting the child’s list of complaints, the therapist, parent, and child have them worked together to create a fuller, less negative picture of the alienated parent.
After making progress in therapy sessions, a therapist may propose external activities, which may be supervised, between the parent and child, including meals out, extended-family get-togethers, movie or shopping outings, or playground trips. They may also encourage engagement with the child’s favorite hobbies or watching family videos or looking at photos.
For reunification therapy to “stick,” the child or children must be “immunized” against further alienation attempts by the other parent. In a positive, and ideally humorous, way, the therapist can help the child understand the concept of projection, and how some of the complaints the other parent raised against the target may apply to that parent equally, if not more so. In this way, the child may experience relief and empowerment that they can better understand how both parents speak about each other, and resist attempts to sway them.
Not necessarily. Family separation can often be a cause of ongoing trauma for a child and parents, leading post-traumatic stress which may benefit from further treatment. Also, some children have been found to swing back toward hostility toward, or distrust of, the parent who had once abused them, or had been removed from the home. Ongoing therapy could help the child and the parent find a more consistent, reliable connection.
Reunification therapy is not a type of therapy, per se, but a mandated intervention typically conducted by a mental health professional with experience working within the legal system; it will likely be a professional trained in various types of marriage and family therapy, and who will be able to address the issues presented both by the children and the adults within a family.
Unlike other types of therapy, with reunification therapy, it may be the court which hires the therapist and not the clients, and the therapist will be reporting on their progress to the court—perhaps specifically to a guardian al litem (GAL), or a neutral party appointed by a court to represent the best interests of the child.