Reunification therapy (RT) is a form of family therapy often court-ordered when a parent-child contact problem has culminated in the child refusing to spend time with one parent. This type of refusal is typically seen in separated or divorced families in which there is a favored parent and a rejected parent. It is a common mistake to assume this occurs due to parental alienation, as that is only one potential cause of a parent-child relationship rift. A child may reject a parent due to that parent having said or done things that greatly upset the child, a pathological attachment to an abusive parent, a desire to avoid conflict, an enmeshment with an emotionally dependent or needy parent, and/or a shared delusional belief about one parent with a very disturbed, thought-disordered and powerful parent (this latter possible cause is often referred to as parental alienation). There are many other factors contributing to and sustaining parent-child contact problems, including:
- Intense marital conflict before and after the separation
- Lack of functional co-parenting
- Divorce conflict and litigation
- A humiliating separation
- The personality of the favored parent
- The favored parent’s negative beliefs and behaviors
- The personality of the rejected parent
- The rejected parent’s reaction to the contact problem
- Aligned professionals (teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, attorneys)
- Sibling relationships
- Attitudes and behaviors of extended family members
- The child’s own vulnerability
Research has shown that disrupted parent-child relationships have a negative impact on children of all ages. Children and adolescents who have a disrupted relationship with one parent are at long-term risk for stress-related physical health problems, internalizing disorders (anxiety and depression) and externalizing disorders (sexual impulsivity, substance abuse, and poor school and social adjustment). They may regularly employ cognitive distortions and learn to avoid rather than address challenges in interpersonal relationships. It is therefore recommended for their healthy emotional development that an attempt at repairing the rupture with the rejected parent be made. Often reunification therapy is ordered when alienation by the favored parent of the rejected parent has been observed and substantiated. Alienation occurs when one parent disparages, badmouths, and undermines the relationship of the child with the rejected parent. The child begins to share the favored parent’s attitudes and have unreasonable or disproportionate reactions to the rejected parent’s behavior. The child may have previously had a positive relationship with the rejected parent, and would not have rejected the parent if not for the favored parent’s interjections. Alienation can range from mild to severe, at times reaching the level of emotional abuse. It is normative for children to demonstrate an affinity for one parent based on age, gender, and shared interests, but show no rejection of the other parent. Often children of divorce will form an alliance with one parent and exhibit extreme loyalty toward them, but will not reject the other parent. Additionally, the parent with which they are aligned will often encourage a relationship with the other parent. It is also normative for children to reject a parent in cases of abuse or what may be called “justified rejection.” The child rejects the parent due to witnessing domestic violence, his or her own experience of physical/sexual/emotional abuse, poor parenting, uncontrolled mental illness, or substance abuse.
Often it is difficult to ascertain the exact nature of the parent-child contact problem given contradictory testimony and confusing behaviors. However, it is important to determine if the rejection is primarily based on things the rejected parent did within the parent-child relationship that resulted in the child refusing contact, as the approach in therapy then needs to focus on parent coaching and education to prepare that parent to be able to interact with their child in a healthier way. An assumption of alienation can result in forcing a child to reengage with a parent who is still engaging in poor parenting and therefore places the child in a difficult emotional situation to navigate. Complicating this picture is justified rejection and parental alienation are not mutually exclusive, as a child can have one parent who has done things to cause a parent-child rift and one parent who engages in alienation; thus, it is not always easy to parse out which parent “caused” the child to refuse contact. Regardless of the cause, when a child refuses contact with a parent, reunification therapy is often appropriate. Reunification with the non-custodial parent is not the primary goal of the intervention, but a by product of individual and relationship work with family members. In reunification therapy, the reunification therapist must treat the entire family. The philosophy of this work is that all family members contributed to where the family is, and therefore all family members have work to do to move the family to a better place. The favored parent must be involved in the work with the rejected parent and the child.
In this work, reconnection does not necessarily mean contact, especially at first. Therapy may begin with the child and rejected parent sharing letters with one another outside the office. In early stages of reunification therapy, “doing” rather than “talking” is helpful. A parent and child may engage in a motor activity in a shared space, such as playing a game. They will later focus on problems in their relationship systematically. It must be clear to all parties that time spent in reunification therapy is not “supervised time” but “therapeutic time.” The reunification therapist must work with the favored parent to manage emotional triggers and anger and challenge cognitive distortions and rigid thinking and acting. The reunification therapist must also work with the rejected parent on not externalizing blame, having an accurate perception of the child and/or his or her past parenting, and taking responsibility for his or her own role in theparent-child contact problem. All parties are coached by the reunification therapist to learn how to listen without reacting, respond in a welcoming way, accept small steps, engage in negotiation, and not focus on the court order. The reunification therapist helps both parents reduce their stress in response to the child’s often anxious, fearful and/or angry response to spending time with the rejected parent. There are some untreatable cases of parent-child contact problems that are not suitable for reunification therapy. These cases include factors such as domestic violence, severe mental health problems, intractable substance abuse, child abuse, severe/pathological alienation, and vulnerabilities in the child. In some of these examples, such as child abuse, forcing a child to spend time with their abuser before they indicate emotional readiness to do so can cause long-term emotional harm to the child.
In cases of alienation where all other interventions have failed, and alienating behavior has risen to the point of emotional abuse, sometimes custody reversal will be suggested. Custody reversal involves placing the child with the rejected parent for ninety days with no contact with the favored parent. The favored parent is referred for alienation-oriented treatment during that time. Reunification of the child with the favored parent is monitored and contingent on the favored parent’s progress in treatment. This type of intervention raises a dilemma; it is difficult if not impossible to tell if the child staying in a severely alienating custodial situation is emotionally worse than risking the emotional damage to the child in an artificial change of custody. Custody reversal should never be initiated as a punitive measure or based only on the evidence of a parent engaging in alienation; rather, it should require a risk analysis and must consider the quality of the child’s relationship with the rejected parent regardless of any alienation. In extreme cases of alienation, it also may be useful for the family to attend a multi-family camp or a single-family intensive.
In some of the most entrenched cases where sustained effort at reunification therapy has failed, the least detrimental alternative may be a well-prepared intervention that provides the rejected parent an opportunity to give the child a “parting message.” This message explains that the rejected parent will let go of continued efforts to reconnect for the moment, but allows the rejected parent the opportunity to express his or her love and commitment to the child with an open door in the future. Before reaching the conclusion that reunification therapy has failed, it is important for all parties involved – judges, attorneys, therapists, and all family members – to realize the slow pace at which successful reunification therapy sometimes progresses. There are cases where reunification therapy progresses at a relatively quick pace. In some cases, however, it can take several months for a child to feel ready to be in the same room with a parent, or once together, to discuss the important topics that need to be addressed to repair the relationship. While naturally the rejected parent hopes reunification therapy will be a sprint toward custodial time together, at times it is more of a marathon that takes time and continued effort to reach that goal.