Reunification therapy (RT) is often court-ordered for separated or divorced families, where there is a favored parent and a rejected parent. The goal of reunification therapy is to restore a disrupted parent-child relationship.
While the term is commonly used in the court systems, there are actually no standard therapeutic protocols for “reunification therapy,” so every therapist or counselor is free to use whatever methods they find appropriate. This makes it vitaly important for families to choose a qualified therapist with a background in family systems therapy.
At the outset, many rejected parents seem to be facing an insurmountable disruption, but there is hope. Restoring a disrupted relationship with your child is possible, and there are steps you can take that will help dramatically. Namely, educate yourself on the complexities of the situation and find an experienced family systems therapist.
We’re here to help you do both.
Why Reunification is Important
It’s crucial to understand that reunification is what’s best for your child. It may seem like your child is choosing to sever the relationship, but never let anyone convince you that your attempts at reunification are selfish or hurtful to your child. Children of all ages are the biggest victims of a disrupted parent-child relationship.
Research shows that the long-term impacts on children are severe and long-lasting, including:
Depression, including major depressive disorder
Sexual promiscuity – Substance and alcohol abuse
Inability to form healthy relationships and insecure attachment in adulthood
Personality disorders – Lower levels of self-sufficiency in adulthood
Alternately, children who have healthy relationships with both parents during a disrupted marriage handle the separation better and maintain better long-term mental health:
- The negative effects that pre-teens and teenagers experience from a disrupted marriage are significantly lower if the child maintains a good relationship with both parents.
- Strong parent-child relationships have been proven to mediate the negative effects of parental separation on children, improving trust and empathy and reducing depression in teenagers.
Even in cases when children had no contact with a non-resident parent after a divorce or separation, a University of London study showed improved emotional well-being and educational performance in children who got consistent information about the estranged parent—demonstrating the value of even a partial relationship.
And, not least of all, reunification is important for your health and wellbeing. It’s more than just wanting to see your child (although that would certainly be reason enough!). Long-term effects on alienated parents include anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide, isolation, and CPTSD.
It might feel lonely and overwhelming at first, but fighting to restore your relationship with your child is a vital and heroic path to take.
Note: Of course, the benefits of reunification only apply when the parent in question is safe. In cases where a parent is abusive or negligent, mentally unstable, or given to substance abuse, reunification is not necessarily ideal. Courts do not often order reunification therapy in those circumstances, until the unhealthy parent has made adjustments in their parenting—with the support of therapy and/or rehabilitation—and it is safe to reunite the child.
How Relationships Are Disrupted: From Alienation to Justifiable Estrangement
Where parent-child relationships are disrupted, there is always abuse. The child is either being manipulated by a favored authority figure to reject a parent, or physically or emotionally abused by the parent they are rejecting.
Alienation is manipulation by a favored parent that casts the other parent in such a negative light that the child eventually, unjustly severs the relationship. In cases of separation or divorce, the non-resident parent is often the victim of alienation, but alienation can
occur in almost any family arrangement. We have seen alienation in families where parents share 50/50 parenting time, where the alienated parent is the one doing most of the parenting, or even within intact families.
The effects of alienation can also present on a spectrum—from a mildly disproportionate (but unjust) disdain for the non-favored parent, to complete rejection. No matter how “severe” the effect of alienation seems to be, however, it’s important to remember that it’s always abuse. Using a relationship to manipulate a child into rejecting their own parent is abusive in any degree, and should be addressed as such.
Justifiable estrangement, on the other hand, is the severing of a parent-child relationship when the child has witnessed or experienced abuse, dangerously poor parenting, substance abuse, or untreated mental illness. Reunification therapy is not ordered in these cases, at least until the rejected parent has proven themselves rehabilitated.
The difficulty of disrupted family relationships and reunification therapy is that many cases include an element of both. Oftentimes, some poor parenting has happened, and a favored parent is exaggerating a minor issue to win the favor and/or custody of a child.
Additionally, alienated parents often unwittingly reinforce the disruption. Parenting an alienated child can be counter-intuitive, and some “normal” parenting practices actually reinforce the alienation.
How Reunification Therapy Works
There is no standard process for reunification therapy. Each therapist and family counselor takes a different approach to the work, but there are generally three stages of the process:
2. Commitment and treatment
As with most therapy, an initial, get-to-know-you period is necessary. It’s especially important for family therapies, because everyone involved has a different view of the situation. The counselor needs to talk with each family member individually in order to understand the nuance of the situation.
During the assessment stage, the therapist should speak with each parent and child separately, and demonstrate a complete lack of bias toward either parent. The therapist should also meet with each parent, plus the children.
Commitment and Treatment
Commitment and treatment is when the therapist facilitates opportunities for each family member to take steps toward reunification. This process can be quick or long, and will look different for every family.
Some therapists will continue with individual sessions, while others will move quickly to joint sessions. Some focus on direct communication first, while others start by creating shared experiences to build trust.
The favored parent should still have some part in the reunification therapy during treatment. He/She needs to understand and accept the restoration of the disrupted parent-child relationship and learn about healthy co-parenting.
More joint sessions are common during integration, although some individual sessions may continue. The focus shifts, during the integration stage, to parents and children working together for long-term reunification.
A successful integration requires an experienced therapist to observe subtleties in behaviors that family members may not understand, and that less experienced counselors often miss. These cues can help parents understand how to better relate to their child, in order to ensure the long-term restoration of the relationship.
How Reunification Therapy Ends: The Good and the Bad
Reunification therapy can culminate in a variety of ways.
- Reunification — In the best situations, reunification therapy ends with a restored parent-child relationship and healthy, sustained co-parenting.
- Custody reversal — When alienation is confirmed, and the alienating parent has demonstrated a lack of understanding of how their behavior is impacting their children and no desire to change their behavior, a change in custody is recommended. However, this also requires a court of law to support the change.
- Failure — Reunification efforts can fail for a variety of reasons. The wrong therapist can make problems much worse and further entrench the alienation. Alienating parents who refuse to cooperate can thwart reunification efforts. Finally, the age of the child can be a factor: It can be very difficult to change the mindset of a teenage (or older) child who has been abused by an alienating parent for years.
How to Make Reunification Therapy Successful
Successful reunification therapy often requires an additional layer of support, in addition to court-ordered therapy, because there are no standard therapeutic protocols. That means two specific steps are required to really do everything you can to restore your parent-child relationship:
1. Find the best therapist. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of finding the right therapists, but that’s extremely hard to do if you’ve never been through this process before.
2. Educate yourself. Your counselor will help, but the more you understand how alienation works, how narcissism works, how to parent and relate to an alienated child, how to manage your relationship with your former partner or spouse, etc., the more successful reunification will be.
The coaches and consultants at Pathways have personal experience and special expertise in reunification, and a passion to help children embroiled in family conflict. We have seen how effective a collaborative approach can be, so we often consult directly with parents to help them find a qualified therapy team and manage the situation well. We integrate with your current therapeutic and/or legal teams, and are available to support you in every stage of reunification.
If you are currently seeking or working through reunification therapy with your family, it can be extremely helpful to have an expert on your side. Our one-on-one online coaching sessions will help you navigate the therapeutic process, provide guidance on how to approach counseling, and better understand and relate to your children.
We also have a variety of online courses available to help you make the most of reunification therapy and maintain strong relationships indefinitely:
- Ready to Reconnect is specifically designed to prepare you for reunification therapy. You will be empowered to understand your role in reunification and to support your child’s journey by learning how to draw your child in, rather than push them away.
- If you feel like your ex is using alienation to set your child against you, The Alienation Code can help you understand how it’s happening, so you can better combat it. This program is also now bundled with Trapped in Trauma, which builds on concepts from The Alienation Code. Together, they are the most comprehensive course for parents to understand what is happening, how it’s affecting your child, and how to handle it.
- Pathways Through Conflict will help you develop the conflict management skills you need to handle your divorce well. It includes additional information on reunification therapy options.
Wherever you are in the process of marriage disruption or reunification therapy, the experienced coaches at Pathways can help. Remember, managing this season well isn’t just for you, it’s for the health and well-being of your child(ren) too.
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