Demystifying Reunification Therapy (RT): Roles & Responsibilities of the Therapist and Family Members

If the court has ordered or parties have consented to reunification therapy (RT), your clients may be looking to you as their attorney to explain to them what RT entails and what will be expected of them. Reunification therapy 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’ or ‘disenfranchised’ parent. It is a common mistake to assume this always 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, an unhealthy 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 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.

Each person involved in the reunification therapy process (i.e. therapist, rejected parent, favored parent, and child) have their own roles and responsibilities. It is important to understand roles to help the reunification process be productive:

Role of the Therapist: The therapist is a neutral individual; he/she is not on the side of the mother or the side of the father. The therapist’s role is to empathize with everyone, and challenge the child, and both parents, to think and behave differently. The reunification therapist helps both parents reduce their stress/anxiety or anger in response to the child’s anxious, fearful and/or angry responses to spending time with the rejected parent. The therapist also teaches both parents how to listen without reacting, respond in a welcoming way, accept small steps, engage in negotiation, not overly-focus on the court order, and be aware cooperation with the therapeutic process is conveyed both directly and indirectly. The reunification therapist may also conduct co-parenting therapy sessions. As ordered and/or applicable, the therapist will provide updates to the court or attorneys about the progress of therapy and everyone’s adherence to guidelines and recommendations. The reunification therapist will determine on a case by case basis the best structure for the reunification team. Formats may include only the reunification therapist, child, and disenfranchised parent meeting, but more often include each parent also having an individual therapist on the reunification-team to guide them in how to best make reunification successful. (Note: A parent or child’s own separate individual therapist cannot act as an individual reunification-team therapist, as that role is so specific to guiding and coaching family members to make RT successful.)

Role of Rejected/Disenfranchised Parent: The rejected parent is the one with whom the child does not want to spend time. It is essential for the success of reunification therapy for the disenfranchised parent to be patient and to allow the child time to reconnect comfortably with him or her. The therapist will work with this parent to help him/her take responsibility for their own role in the parent-child contact problems, develop an accurate perception of their child and/or past parenting issues and not externalize blame, relate to the child in a loving, non-coercive and non-intrusive manner, and correct misperceptions including views surrounding blame. Work with a rejected parent does not suggest the rejected parent has caused the rift; there are parenting and communication skills all parents can learn to better connect with their child.

Role of the Favored Parent: The favored parent is the parent the child lives with and generally has a good relationship with. They are the ones with whom the child wants to spend time. The favored parent may have a lengthy history of reasons, perhaps justified, why the child should not spend time with the other parent. However, it is essential for the success of reunification therapy for this parent to buy into the RT process and goal of relationship-repair, because he/she plays an important role in the success of reunification therapy. The therapist will work with this parent to allow a reciprocal relationship with both parents, differentiate valid concerns from distorted concerns, differentiate parent experience from child experience, set limits and respond appropriately if a child’s behavior is inappropriate or hurtful, provide supportive, encouraging, and positive messages about contact with rejected parent, and maintain healthy parent-child boundaries. It is important the favored parent commit to improving his/her co-parenting relationship with the rejected parent. If the favored parent is in frequent conflict with the child’s other parent, it depletes the emotional resources of both parents to be the best parent they can be to their child. The favored parent can also be supportive by scheduling the child’s appointments in a timely manner, at the frequency recommended by the therapist and/or as ordered by the court, and by being encouraging and informing the child the therapist’s goal is to ensure their emotional well-being, safety, and happiness.

Role of the Child: Many children do not want to attend reunification therapy. They may have been hurt emotionally at some point by the rejected parent, and/or been told negative things about the rejected parent. They often do not have the full picture of what has occurred between the parents and may be adamant they do not want or need a relationship with the rejected parent. The role of the child is to participate in the process and be open to the therapist’s interventions. The reunification therapist will work to reduce anxiety, correct thinking errors, develop/clarify realistic views rooted in experience, remove the child from parental conflict, help the child understand multiple perspectives, ensure appropriate behavior toward both parents, and create new experiences.

What the Therapist’s Role is NOT: Now that you know the role of all individuals involved, let us briefly cover what the reunification therapist’s role is not: he/she should not be asked to make custody recommendations, or create or change visitation schedules. This almost always impedes in some ways on therapeutic rapport and directly hinders progress in therapy. When RT participants see the therapist as the person who determines the custody/visitation schedule, it serves to keep them entrenched in their positions and closed to emotional healing and positive change, as they consciously or unconsciously focus more on persuading the therapist to support their preferred custody schedule than they focus on the therapeutic work of improving family relationships and mental health.

In Summary, RT works best when all family members understand their roles, so feel free to share this article with your clients! Next in this two-part series on RT, we will write about what makes a good Reunification Therapy Order from the perspective of the mental health professional.