There are many reasons why a parent-child relationship could be damaged during a divorce. If there was a prior history of child abuse or lack of parental involvement with the child before the divorce, it would make sense that the child may feel estranged from that parent. The term estrangement is most often used by professionals to describe a warranted rejection of a parent. But, if the currently rejected parent had years of a loving, bonded relationship with the child (in the absence of abuse) and suddenly the relationship becomes conflicted after a divorce, then the rejection is most likely unwarranted and may be rooted in an attack by one parent on the relationship the child has with the other parent.
Reunification therapy usually starts with one parent seeking relief from the court by asking for help to reestablish contact and emotional connection with his or her child. In many cases the other parent may resist rebuilding the relationship, so reunification therapy works best when it is court-ordered. The court order should support the recommendations and service agreement of the treating therapist and should include the expectations of cooperation by both parents, with sanctions for noncompliance. Treatment goals should be clearly defined with the intent to improve the damaged relationship and to progressively increase contact. Since it is sometimes difficult to assess at first glance what is causing the rejection, it’s important for the reunification therapist to conduct a thorough assessment to determine the cause of the relationship disruption.
The reunification therapist should start by gathering important information from both parents in order to make a proper, balanced assessment. Both parents and children should be interviewed. Although the experiences and feelings of the child are very important, an experienced reunification therapist will look at the overall functioning of the entire family, and not just the symptoms of the child. The treatment usually focuses on changing the family interaction patterns, rather than any one individual as the identified patient. The therapist should get both parents involved, and then work to restructure unhealthy alignments and interaction patterns.
It is important to note that a child who is being pressured to reject a once-loved parent in order to please the other parent is being emotionally abused. Children naturally love, need, and identify with both parents, as each parent has literally contributed to half of who they are. In order for children to have a healthy development and identity formation, they need to feel free to love both parents. Helping parents recognize this basic need is a major goal of reunification therapy.
When seeking reunification therapy, a therapist should be chosen very carefully, as many have no training in family systems or in the specialty of high-conflict divorce. These therapists are not qualified to make proper assessments or give the needed interventions in these cases. Further, therapists who lack specialized training in reunification therapy can actually cause more harm than good by misdiagnosing or reinforcing unhealthy alignments. Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are highly recommended, as they receive the most extensive training in Family Systems Theory and are the most qualified and specially trained to intervene when there is a disruption in family relationships.
Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness
Written by: Michelle Jones, LCSW
Michelle is the director for reunification therapy services at the Provo Center for Couples and Families.