What is Reunification Therapy?

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.

How to Talk to Your Teenager about Hard Things

Many parents bring their child in for therapy and express that they don’t know how to talk to them about things that are happening with their family (ex. divorce, depression of a family member). Also, I’ve heard from many teenagers that their parents haven’t talked to them about “awkward” topics, such as sex, pornography, dating, or even emotions. However, I have found that when parents have open communication with their children, children tend to be more emotionally healthy.  

First, when it comes to talking about sex, pornography, or dating, one of the most common questions I get is, “How do I know what is age-appropriate?” The simple answer to that question is to start with the basics. If the child asks more questions than answer those questions. I have found that if parents are unwilling to answer or feel awkward answering, their children will turn to other sources to get answers. Further, if the children see that the parents feel awkward talking about the subject, then the subject becomes taboo and they feel like they can’t talk with their parents in the future when they have questions.  

Another thing to keep in mind when talking with your teenagers about sex is to use correct terms. The terms they usually hear are slang, but it is important for them to understand exactly what you are talking about and the easiest way to avoid confusion is to avoid slang. Further, if you start to get uncomfortable, take some deep breaths and remind yourself that its important for them to know from you. Some parents, mine included, have used books to help when talking to their child/teenager about maturation. Just make sure that you know what’s in the book. Read the book with them and answer their questions.  

Second, when it comes to feelings, teenagers tend to have a lot of them. I have heard from parents that they are burnt out listening to the emotional rollercoaster, or that they don’t know how to react when they feel like their teenager’s emotions are silly, or they simply do not understand what their child is feeling because they, the parent, are not good with emotions. It’s important to listen to teenagers and help them learn to regulate their own emotions. I’ve found that most parents feel pressure to fix their teenager’s problems or to make their children happy. However, sometimes the best way to help them is to listen and then help them problem solve their own problems. For example, if they come to you emotionally distraught over being left out, it can be helpful to listen to their feelings, let them know that you are listening by repeating back a part of what they said, then ask them what they can do in the future when this happens (or ask what they need to do to feel better in this moment). 

As a parent, many difficult conversations need to be had with your teenagers. It can feel overwhelming at times if you don’t know what to say or how to say it; but if you can push through, you will help your children learn valuable skills they need later in life. You can help develop a relationship with your teenager of trust and openness that can help them safely navigate their way through those challenging teenage years.  

 

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine 

Now That My Teen Has Come Out – WHAT DO I DO NOW?

Ive told my son that nothing changes, that I still love him, but I expect him to live the same standards as the rest of the family, and yet he seems more and more depressed. Why isnt this working? 

I dont want my daughters ideas about being lesbian to influence the younger kids in the family, so Ive told her not to talk about it at home. 

I think if my son is going to wear makeup, hes going to get made fun of at school. I cant stop that. 

In the September/October issue of Utah Valley Health and Wellness, I talked about parental self-care. It’s important for parents to have people to talk with who understand and don’t blame them for what they are feeling and experiencing. In the July/August issue, I talked about how to keep lines of communication open when a child “comes out” as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc.  In this issue, we’re going to talk about how to keep you and your teen connected. 

Some families consider that their main responsibility to a child that comes out is to continue to teach truths about sexuality and gender, and to make sure their teen does not misunderstand or ignore these teachings. In my experience with hundreds of teens from good homes, this emphasis generally results in a disconnection that makes communication feel tense and difficult. Because teens need a good relationship with parents in order to navigate the experiences of being a healthy teen, I recommend that parents: 

  1. Consider that your child may not be choosing to rebel against your teachings and beliefs as they learn new things about themselves and want to share them with you. 
  1. Recognize that your child knows where you stand with regard to teachings about sexuality and gender. 
  1. Learn to be open to hearing from your child what internalizing these ideas has been like (both recently and in the past). 
  1. Find out what your child’s hopes and dreams for themselves are, and how they may be changing. 
  1. Show respect for your child, especially as your child’s experiences are different from yours. 

These five things will make a dramatic difference in your child’s interest in re-opening a relationship with you. The most important thing is that you – as a parent – remain a steadfast connection with the world of respectful and loving relationship with your child. Children who do well – that is – avoid risky sex, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and suicidal behaviors – have parents who show respect for their childrens sense of what is true about them. (For details about the retrospective studies of families who demonstrate accepting and rejecting behaviors and the outcomes for teens, see http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/) 

If you want help navigating how to support your teen while making sure they are safe and mentally healthy (especially if identifying as a gender or sexual minority goes against your beliefs), you may want to:  

  1. Meet with other parents who have found peace in this journey (last issue listed several groups that meet in Utah County) 
  1. Meet with a therapist who can help you and your teen navigate issues of safety and mental health. 

 

Many families have found their way through this journey with greater love and appreciation for each other and for their relationships, which strengthens everyone, including parents and the younger children in the family. 

How do I Get My Husband to Come to Counseling?

Counseling, if done right, is husband friendly! Find the right therapist and you’ll understand. The problem is that many husbands worry that the therapist is going to take their wife’s side and gang up on him, or that therapy will be uncomfortable. While the latter may be true, the former isn’t. A good therapist doesn’t take sides or act as a referee. I have had many couples want to hash out an argument in front of me in counseling so that I can tell them who is right. I stop them, and explain that even if one of them ended up right, that they would be so wrong in their rightness – their marriage would suffer because they insisted on being right instead of compassionate and forgiving. A good therapist, rather, is able to foster healthy interactions between spouses so that they both feel safe and are able to be vulnerable and genuine with each other. When husbands understand that what they feel and think is important, then they are more willing to make this uncomfortable leap with their spouse. Women are more likely than men to initiate therapy, but without buy-in from the man, it is difficult to be successful in therapy. My suggestion to women who want to initiate counseling, but have a reluctant spouse is to recognize that this is scary for your spouse. They may feel as if they will be attacked, or worse yet, that they will lose you. Help them understand that your desire for counseling is because you love him and because you want this to work – but aren’t sure how to make fix it. Ask him to give therapy at least 3 sessions – after that, if he still feels reluctant there might be another counselor or approach that you could try. Most men feel better about therapy after at least 3 sessions if you have the right therapist for you.

 

Originally published on www.tristonmorgan.com

 

The Secret of Pornography

Secrets fuel addiction. As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, addictions, such as pornography addictions, are a shame-based experience. This means that when someone uses pornography they feel as if they are a bad person, rather than feeling that they are a good person despite making a mistake. When someone feels shame, they often compartmentalize what they have done – they hid it and separate it from who they think they really are, or, think that that mistake totally defines who they really are.

This is where secrets come into play. Over time, a man (or woman – I’ve worked with both in therapy for pornography issues) who has been using pornography and feeling shame because of it will gather many secrets. He won’t want to tell anyone what he is doing, or won’t want to tell them all that he is doing. He might only present the best parts of himself or just tell enough about his mistakes to others to appease them or to feel like he is being open. But, in fact, he is keeping secrets. These secrets start to bury him and make him feel more shame. They take an effort to maintain and keep hidden. They cause him stress and to feel disconnected from others. All of these things can lead to more addictive acting out.

Being transparent is key. This, in part, is why in the 12-step model of recovery (for alcohol, sexual addiction or substance addiction) addicts are asked to write a fearless moral inventory and to share it. Being open with others can feel uncomfortable and embarrassing. Many would say, “It’s in the past – let it stay there” or, “I don’t want to hurt her, so I’m not going to tell her about it”. These mindsets only make things worse for someone using pornography and their spouse/family. Telling others and being transparent is on the path towards recovery.

Pornography counseling offers a venue to be transparent and honest with yourself and with your loved ones. A good therapist will help you through this process in a way that might be painful, but certainly not shameful.

Originally published on www.tristonmorgan.com

 

Coming Out – Part 2 Parental Self-Care

When he told me he only had crushes on boys and thats why he never dated, I started crying. 

My son told me not to tell his father that he really feels like a girl. Did I let him play with girls too much? 

I asked my daughter why her best friend identifies as lesbian, and she told me she thinks she may be one too. Im sure she is not. 

When teens come out, the world shifts. Some parents respond with denial, wanting to diminish the news. Others feel anger and want to find out who is responsible. Some parents feel sadness, anticipating a loss of shared values, a loss of future. Denial, anger and sadness are all important aspects of grief processing, and for many parents, responding to a child’s coming out is a grief experience. 

Most children talk with their parents only after years of trying to figure out what is really happening inside, and when they finally tell parents, those years are condensed into a moment that – to a parent – may feel like a dropped bomb. 

After listening to hundreds of stories of parents responding to their children’s expressions of attraction and identity, I’ve seen how important it is for parents to take care of their own emotional health afterward.*  

Here are some valuable principles to keep in mind: 

  1. Take a break to figure yourself out. Denial, anger, and grief are expected. However, if your child feels overwhelmed by your denial, anger, and grief, then healthy connecting may be more difficult. Many children “take on” their parents’ reactions and become more isolated. You may want to find another place and time to express and explore your genuine reactions. One mother told her child she loved him and needed some time to figure out her own feelings, and then she spent the afternoon at her sister’s home. Another father immediately called a counselor, reassuring his son that the counseling was intended to help the father provide healthy support for his son.  
  2. Remind yourself, “This is not a crisis.” One mother described feeling completely numb. Because Christmas was only a few days away, she felt both the pressure of the family’s expectation and the heaviness of the news. She found that repeating aloud the words, “This is not a crisis” reminded her that their family would still survive despite the new information.
  3. It’s normal to feel more upset, even though your child may seem happier. While children often feel relief after sharing feelings with parents, your feelings may begin to resemble a roller-coaster. It may seem unfair that your child has just given you the burden to carry. Breathe through these feelings and recognize that this is normal.  
  4. Find safe people to share what you are feeling. Your child may insist that you tell no one. And although it’s important to honor your child’s sense of privacy, it’s OK to let your child know that you need to talk with someone. Perhaps you and your child can agree on a trusted family member, friend, or counselor. 
  5. Limit your contact with others who are uninformed. Sometimes well-meaning friends and family have advice that is not helpful, or that undermines your confidence in yourself and your child. It’s OK to limit your contact with these people for a period of time. Plan what you will say. “We are working hard to support each other right now and I need to focus on that,” may be helpful to repeat.
  6. And finally, when you ask “Why me?” try switching to the question, “Why not me?” and see what strengths you find in yourself. Chances are you are being called to a deeper way of loving your child and yourself. 

SIDEBAR MATERIAL — Find a Parent Support Group in Utah County 

Find a parent support group. Meeting with other parents in similar situations has been a positive emotional turning point for many. Here are a few in Utah Valley: 

  1. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meets weekly at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in downtown Provo (provopflag@gmail.com) 
  2. Encircle Parents’ Meeting (Third Sunday of each month at Encircle in Provo) https://encircletogether.org/supportgroups 
  3. Northstar Parents’ Meeting (Quarterly meeting at a parent’s home in Lehi) 

https://www.lds.org/blog/navigating-family-differences-with-love-and-trust?lang=eng  

 Next time:  Coming Out Part 3 – What do we do now? 

 

Coming Out – Part 1 When your teen opens up

“I wish I could take it back and do it over!” parents say about the moment their teens told them they were gay, lesbian, transgender, or that the teens were worried about their sexual orientation, attractions, or gender identity. “Nothing prepared me for this!” they say. Other parents remember, “My first thought was that what I was hearing was somehow my fault, that I’d been a bad parent, and I just fell apart.” Even parents who managed to say to their teen, “I still love you, it doesn’t change anything,” still sometimes have regrets and wish they could press the re-start button.

As a therapist who has listened to hundreds of family “coming out” stories, I’ve noticed that what happens during these conversations has a strong impact on feelings within the family. This first interaction between parent and teen (and each conversation that follows) either creates stronger bonds or difficult memories that parents and teens have to work through later.

What most parents want is to keep a strong relationship with their teen, to remain a positive influence for good mental, physical and spiritual health. Yet, sometimes, conversations with teens create distance rather than connection.

Why should I think about this?

Chances are you will have a teen in your family, your extended family, your neighborhood, or church community who will eventually come out to you. How you respond to this teen may make the difference in his or her decision to live a healthy life, or even to keep on living. Research suggests that teens who identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning) feel the greatest positive or negative effects from their family’s reaction to them. Negative reactions from family are associated with teens’ increased risk for depression, alcohol use, substance abuse, and other dangerous behaviors including suicide attempts. Your preparing now for a possible family member’s coming out may be one of the most powerful chances you have to be a positive influence in a young person’s life.

What can I say?

Some parents feel authentic simply saying, “Oh, OK, tell me more about it when you feel like it,” and moving on. If you’re reading this, chances are that’s not you. A young person’s coming out may make you feel as if the axis of the world has shifted and you are supposed to set it right somehow. One of the least helpful ways to respond is to assume that the teen has made a choice that rejects your values.

Most teens share their feelings about attractions and identity only after they have wrestled alone with issues for weeks, months, and often years. Most are keenly afraid that their parents will feel that family values have been rejected. Even if you are the wisest person you know, it is unlikely that you will know more about the challenges of what they have been experiencing than they do. It is also unlikely that you will learn what they are experiencing without a lot of listening. The most helpful thing a parent can do may be to set the stage for future conversations.

The statements below encourage further sharing without assuming the teen wants to reject family values. These statements also make it more likely a parent will learn more about what a teen is experiencing:

I’m so glad you’re sharing this with me.

Thank you for telling me this. I’ve been wondering how I could help you.

What you are telling me is important. Most important, however, is that I love you, and this doesn’t change my love for you.

I hope you will keep talking to me about this.

This changes things for me too, and it will give me a lot to think about, but it doesn’t change how I feel about you. I still love and cherish you. We’ll work through this together.

This is hard for me, but I’m willing to do hard things as your parent. I want to be here for you to help you.

 

Next time:  Coming Out Part 2 – What now? Parent self-Care.

By Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, MS, LMFT