Reunification therapy is designed to repair a parent-child relationship which has been disrupted either during or after a high conflict divorce. Typically, a non-custodial parent asks a court to order reunification therapy after one or more children stop following an agreed-upon or court-ordered parenting plan. The custodial parent may claim that the children simply do not want to see the non-custodial parent, and the non-custodial parent may accuse the custodial parent of “parental alienation.”
Healing Disrupted Parent-Child Relationships
Unfortunately, some parents simply give in to a child’s initial reluctance to comply with visitation and let the situation go unresolved for months, or even years. This is not generally in the best interests of the children, who need to know that both parents are committed to fulfilling parental roles. Usually a good first step for a parent is to request mediation to try to work the situation out with the other parent. If a custodial parent refuses to attend mediation, or if mediation alone does not lead to a solution, the non-custodial parent can ask a court to order reunification therapy to facilitate renewed contact with children. The court will appoint a qualified therapist who has knowledge and experience working with family disruption in divorce.
A court order for reunification therapy should require both parents to cooperate in the therapy. It should also outline the court’s specific concerns and treatment goals, define appropriate interventions, set parameters for involvement of extended family members, specify payment arrangements, and outline consequences for non-compliance with the order. If complicating issues exist, such as a history of alcohol or substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration, or any kind of past domestic violence, the order must also set up parameters to ensure that all contact between family members will be safe. The reunification therapist will have access to any prior pertinent records from other professionals or agencies.
How Reunification Therapy Works
The reunification therapist’s role is to work with the entire family for the best interests of the child or children in question. Neither parent directs the therapy and information shared with the therapist is not confidential. The therapist must report significant findings and positive or negative outcomes back to the court.
Assessment and Preparation
The first step is family assessment. This involves meeting with each parent separately and reviewing any custody evaluations and current court orders or parenting agreements related to custody or visitation. The therapist may also consult with other involved professionals, such as a parenting coordinator. If the custodial parent is not supportive of the therapy, the therapist will attempt to facilitate voluntary cooperation by focusing on what is best for the children. Parent education will revolve around family dynamics which commonly arise during the divorce process, how such dynamics may lead to children feeling the need to align with one parent over the other, and the ultimate negative impacts of such dynamics.
The therapist will not begin with any preconceptions regarding how the current situation has evolved. While the non-custodial parent usually holds the custodial parent responsible for the lack of contact with the child, few scenarios come down to one parent being totally right and the other being totally wrong. The custodial parent will have the opportunity to provide information about contributing actions of the non-custodial parent. Assigning blame to either parent is not helpful. A successful therapist builds trust and enlists both parent in working toward positive results for children.
The therapist interviews children separately, not only from the parents, but also from any other children. It is common for one child to resist contact to a much greater degree than another. Older children also sometimes urge younger siblings to adopt an agenda against the non-favored parent. The therapist will encourage children to air all complaints and will always take them seriously. Often complaints are justified, but rarely are they serious enough to support elimination of parental contact. Family tension from a difficult divorce sometimes causes complaints to loom larger than life in a child’s mind. The therapist will help the child consider the long-term benefits of having a positive relationship with both parents.
Family Integration: Joint and Individual Sessions
After interviewing the family members individually, the therapist will begin to see the child with the non-custodial parent. The focus of these joint sessions will be on addressing the child’s thoughts and emotions and coaching both the parent and the child toward more positive and blame-free interactions. The therapist can also use the sessions to help the parent and child plan some activities to do together outside of therapy.
The therapist generally also observes the child’s interaction with the custodial parent. Parents are often unaware of subtle cues they send children through words and actions. Individual sessions with each parent can focus on modifying behavior patterns that may be contributing to the current situation. The goal of the therapy is to gradually increase the amount of time the child spends with the non-custodial parent until a more normal relationship is restored.
Results of Reunification Therapy
Therapy results vary, not only according to the history of each parent-child relationship, but also according to the ongoing interaction of all personalities in the family. As a general rule, children do not respond well to being forced to adhere to the demands of a parent with whom they have a difficult history. This is particularly true of adolescents, who at least to some extent are developmentally programmed to pull away from parents. Focusing on the process of developing a closer emotional relationship rather than on a goal of eventually adhering to any specific schedule may be helpful.
Parents generally need to commit to a longer term course of therapy to see real results. At least eight to twelve sessions with increasingly frequent outside visits is generally recommended, during which time the therapist will keep the court apprised of progress. The therapist will also submit a final report to the court at the conclusion of the process.
Do you think reunification therapy might be a helpful option in your case? Contact us today for a free confidential consultation. Secure your future with your children. Call us: 888-888-0919.