Reunification therapy is a systemic process intended to rebalance the quality of the child’s relationship with each parent when one parent has not had contact with the child. The hope of reunification therapy is that it will result in the re-establishing of the parent/child relationship and that the family members will learn and practice skills leading to healthier functioning in the future.
It is important for a child, teen or parent to ask yourself, “How will I know if I am ready?” “What if I think I’m ready and I’m not?” “Will I ever be ready?” “Do you think I’m ready?” The therapist may identify that you are therapeutically ready to begin clinically and safely to engage, as a result of receiving therapy to prepare to interact in a healthy and productive way, and to accept some imperfection initially for progress toward healthy reconnection. Readiness can precede willingness, especially for a child who is estranged from a parent and does not envision things improving. However, the therapist (and child) may see the child is ready, i.e., emotionally stable enough to engage.
Willingness is also important. Willingness is what gets us moving in a direction. There is such power in the words: “I am willing. I am not certain of the outcome, but I am willing.” Willingness can also precede readiness, especially for a parent who is eager to see their child again but has not yet prepared with the therapist to ensure that meeting will be positive. Many disenfranchised parents come to reunification therapy willing to engage with their child, but the therapist can see they are not yet ready to engage in a way that will ensure success, and need coaching from the therapist on that to be truly ready.
What is the interplay between readiness and willingness? Imagine you are at the pool, and I suggest that you try to jump into the water, what happens? Nothing. Notice that being asked to “try” to jump doesn’t have action. Similarly, if I am waiting until I’m ready to jump in the pool, that too doesn’t put me in the pool. I can be ready to jump in the pool but that is not actually jumping in the pool. If I am willing to jump in the pool, that is an action that can be taken. I am willing to jump in the pool even though the water may feel cold initially or my swim strokes may be imperfect before more practice; the experience may initially be imperfect, but I am willing to jump for the greater goal of being in the pool and swimming being positive.
If we “try” or wait to be 100% “ready” to jump in the pool, we will be standing on the side of the pool all summer. It is not until we are “willing” to jump in that we actually end up in the pool. But you still get to decide on the framework with willingness. This is important to understand, as children and favored parents often hold onto being unwilling because they think being willing will be too broad too fast. But that isn’t true. I might be willing to jump into the pool from the side of the pool, but not to jump off the high diving board. Does willingness to jump in from the side of the pool mean that I am also willing to jump in off the high diving board? Maybe not. I can dip my toe in the pool, then I can walk in up to my knees… or I can jump right in. Willingness is not an all or nothing adventure, and you still get to make choices. I don’t have to be willing to do everything that may be uncomfortable. I can choose willingness of some activities and not others, but there is no such thing as sort of willing. Each willingness, small or large, has an action step.
Willingness does not mean you agree with what wrongs have occurred or that you forgive the other person. Willingness is being able to be OK with taking an action step and not staying stuck in the past event. It does not change the event; it changes how we choose to live with the event as we forge our future.
In reunification therapy, it is common for the child to follow the favored parents’ thoughts about the other parent. The bits and pieces that are unintentionally, and on occasion intentionally, left by the favored parent are like leaving breadcrumbs to guide the way. It is difficult for a child to stop following the breadcrumbs that are readily available to follow. These breadcrumbs guide us in a way that alleviates the risk and responsibility of making choices that do not align with others in the house and are often the least difficult path. A child taking the breadcrumbs leading them to what view or thought they will adopt is simpler than risking having a different view than everyone else, especially than the favored parent. Favored parents need to be willing to allow the child space to make their own choices, and the therapist can help you be ready to do that.
One underlying foundation for success relies on the relationship between the parents to engage in child centered parenting, aligning with the goals presented and their willingness to put their personal emotions aside. Empathy is a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others. Am I willing to put myself in the other person’s shoes and gain perspective without compromising my feelings?
Willingness does not mean that we are willing to do everything. We can choose what we are willing to do and then decide if we are willing to do it again. Being willing to address relationship issues allows us to have relationships; it is an important life skill. The therapist in reunification therapy works to help all family members be ready for creating new, healthy interactions, which combined with client willingness allows for the action of repairing a relationship.
Are you willing to do something different?