Family courts typically use reunification therapy as a therapeutic intervention in divorce proceedings, and it is becoming more and more common. The goal of reunification therapy is to reunite an estranged or alienated parent with their child.
Having a disrupted parent-child relationship has its risks.
Disrupted parent-child relationships negatively affect children of all ages. Physical health problems, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are common among children who have experienced a disruption in their relationship. In addition, they may avoid addressing relationship problems, preferring to avoid them instead. Reunification therapy is recommended due to the high risks associated with a disrupted parent-child relationship.
Identifying the nature of the parent-child contact issue
There often needs to be more clarity in determining the parent-child contact issue. Numerous factors are involved, and there are a variety of ways in which parents and children can become estranged. There are instances of justified estrangement; there are also instances of parental alienation. Not all therapists understand how to identify the difference. It is important if you believe the other parent is influencing your child to seek a therapist who has experience in this regard. Most individual and family therapists fail to see the total clinical picture and interactional patterns within the family. These therapists end up giving your child a voice that is reflective of the other parent and assert alleged grievances that have no bases in reality. In reunification therapy, it is critical to understand the underlying issue, whether you have legitimate estrangement or not. And the therapist needs to think as much as a forensic psychologist as they do a clinical psychologist (note: I am not equating psychologist with mental health therapist here).
There has been an increase in court-ordered reunification therapy.
Divorce cases are more often ordering reunification therapy for children when there are difficulties with their visiting the noncustodial parent for various reasons. The parties will usually only order reunification therapy after a mediation process, where the estranged parent feels reunification therapy to rebuild a relationship with their child is the last resort.
Reunification therapy identifies and addresses the factors contributing to the estrangement, as well as the child's feelings about it. As part of reunification therapy, parents and children are generally assessed to get a more comprehensive view of the situation to develop a treatment plan appropriate for everyone involved.
In some cases where a child rejects one of their parents, therapeutic interventions in family therapy may provide effective treatment routes.
Family therapy is helpful in focussing on issues from a contextual framework identifying problems in the family system as a whole. In this way it is better than individual therapy. This approach fails to respond effectively to pathological behavior on the part of one of the parents and children who are enmeshed and fused in a constant reflective state of pure alienation from the targeted parent.
Pure alienation occurs when the alienating parent is unable or unwilling to change their behavior. No amount of reunification or family therapy will work. If this occurs, it is inappropriate to ask the targeted parent to reflect on their own contribution to the family dynamic while dealing with the ongoing pathological hostility of the other parent.
Children with alienated parents cannot be treated in a disordered system by asking the alienated parent to accommodate the other parent's views through the child. With pure alienation, reunification therapy can only be effective by forcing the alienating parent to behave differently through the courts.
Contact an Experienced Therapist Today
Reunification therapists are hard to come by. Some family therapists will say they do reunification work but do not specialize in it or have had any training or education in recognizing and identifying parental alienation.
If you have been ordered to participate in reunification therapy during a divorce proceeding, contact a reunification therapist today to discuss the therapeutic process. Settle for none less. Keep the courts from settling for a family therapist with little to no experience with the courts.
If you suspect parental alienation make sure your therapist is familiar with the signs and symptoms. The sad reality of court ordered reunification therapy is that, all too often, this alone can alter and influence the therapist's goals and priorities. It becomes what is known as a framing error. It focuses on the child's relationship with the targeted parent while failing to address and deprogram the child who has potentially been manipulated and psychologically abused by the other parent. For reunification therapy to have any success, the underlying condition must be addressed whether we have legitimate estrangement or not.
Inherently, children who are being alienated are at risk. This is not a dispute over child contact but a case involving child protection. As a result, it is imperative that the causes are accurately identified and that treatment routes do not leave the child or the alienating parent subjected to ongoing psychological and emotional harm.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places emphasis on family systems theory and attachment theory working with families and children.
His education and training has qualified him to sit for and pass the state of North Carolina Licensing Examination Board. His training in family systems theory, attachment theory, personality disorders, and complex trauma gives him the necessary qualifications to assess, diagnose and treat pathology. He also has background and experience in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of attachment issues in the family courts and high conflict divorce. Odell is happily married for 17 years. He is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.