Court ordered reunification therapy takes place when there is, or has been, a high conflict divorce. One, or both, parents may not be following their Parenting Plan and a child [or children] protests being with one parent. Reunification therapy is an attempt to undo damage and help parents and children move on, in a more positive manner.
Unlike more traditional therapy, for an individual or family, there is often great resistance on the part of the alienating parent and the children who are being alienated to engage in reunification therapy. They may miss appointments, come late, feel they are not heard and are not open to hear any view different from theirs. They only want to hear that the other parent is terrible and needs to be avoided so they can be happy. There is no motivation to change their feelings and views. It is difficult for them to acknowledge anything decent about the other parent whose foibles may be greatly magnified. In such cases, the only person who wants the therapy is the alienated parent, who is suffering and wanting to be a parent again.
When doing reunification therapy, it’s important to see the alienating parent quickly and understand their personality and dilemma and try to help them see that they are being ‘heard’. Their willingness to alter their behavior is crucial to helping their children be allowed to have and hold their own feelings about their other parent. If I am accepted, even begrudgingly, by that parent, it is more possible to have a good resolution. If there is more than one alienated child, a younger child will frequently absorb the feelings of an older sibling and imitate their behavior so it is beneficiall to see them individual although there may be exceptions.
Reunification therapy is not a quick fix. As a therapist, I need to work with other professionals. I am asked to speak to or write family members’ therapists, attorneys and the court so this process is not completely confidential. There may also be a parenting coordinator, court ordered to help the parents follow the Parenting Plan in a way that benefits the children. I educate the parents about the importance of parent-child relationships and the emotional damage to children when that is curtailed and a parent is being vilified. The alienated parent needs to understand that s/he has likely made some mistakes that interfered with parenting and is helped to rectify them. They need to be sensitive to their children’s experience and the impact of their alienation from the other parent.
Reunification therapy with the children is listening and understanding their complaints about the alienated parent. There are often kernels of truth in their criticism but they need to recognize their exaggeration. Alienating parents encourage the child’s magnified negative vision of the other parent, his/her partner and extended family and the child remains, Eventually we see an altered version of the child. Although the child uses the alienator’s exact words and phrasing [usually not age appropriate] the s/he is less strident and, eventually, more open to even share some positive memories of the alienated parent.
Joint sessions, with the child and alienated parent, begin with non-threatening interactions and/or games, perhaps some they have enjoyed in the past. As their encounters are less awkward, I initiate some other [not board] games such as guessing the other’s favorite food, vacation, color, etc. These exercises often involve sharing of memories which are especially rich as the child becomes aware that their parent does remember and realizes they were and are important to that parent. We then move on to more conversation and ways to ameliorate their situation.
It is difficult for the alienating parent to feel the child is slipping away and more willing to be with the other parent. More work is needed for that parent to understand and accept their child’s need for both parents. Sessions wind down as the alienated parent and child relationship beings to resume. This is hard work – for all – but so incredibly important.