Many families experiencing the ending of a marriage or long-term relationship do quite well explaining it to the kids and helping them make the transition into their new life - which usually includes going back and forth between each parent’s home and a whole host of other life changes. Some families, however, have a much harder time of it; anger and resentments between the former partners spill over into the lives of the children and cause a skewing of the relationship toward one parent or the other. Sometimes this goes so far as to fit the criteria of “parental alienation syndrome,” which has been shown to be tremendously damaging to children. Most cases don’t go this far, thankfully, but situations where children align much more strongly with one parent than the other can cause serious emotional challenges for children. When the imbalance is too great, the family may benefit from reunification therapy.
Exaggerating the shortcomings of the other parent
No parent is perfect, and these imperfections are often highlighted in some cases of high conflict co-parenting situations. The stress of the divorce process can bring out the worst in people, and when parents aren’t careful, they may “over share” information about their former spouse - in an attempt to garner the loyalty of the kids or to simply have an outlet for their frustrations. Neither of these is healthy for children, and often result in children supporting one parent and blaming the other. I have seen mild cases of this sort as well as very serious cases that resulted in significant alienation of a parent.
When the shortcomings are more significant
There are situations where the behaviors of one parent justifiably have the child or children hesitant to spend time with that parent. What many high conflict co-parents neglect to do, however, is to work toward repairing the relationship the kids have with the other parent. Instead, there is a tendency to “protect” the children by discouraging contact with the other parent. The focus of therapy in this case is to help the estranged parent address his/her behavior so that parenting time can be reinstated and/or be a more pleasant and welcome experience for the children.
Regardless of how problematic the estranged parent’s behaviors might be, from mild to very serious, the parent who knowingly alienates his/her child from the other parent is doing a great disservice to him/her.
Reunification therapy process
“The severe effects of parental alienation on children are well-documented; low self-esteem and self-hatred, lack of trust, depression, and substance abuse and other forms of addiction are widespread, as children lose the capacity to give and accept love from a parent.” (Baker, 2010)
The reunification therapy process typically has three phases, although the length and steps of each phase varies from case to case.
Phase I: Assessment
The purpose of this phase is for the therapist to gather information about the situation by meeting with each of the parents (individually) and the children. Barriers that might obstruct reunification are identified.
The therapist will gather information from collateral sources, such as therapists, parenting consultants, guardian ad items, etc. Typically, the therapist will want copies of the divorce decree, custody evaluation, etc.
The therapist will be assessing:
1) The readiness and willingness of the estranged parent to be a resource for the child or children;
2) The readiness and willingness of the non-estranged parent to support reunification;
3) The capacity and function of the child or children.
Phase II: Commitment & Planning
The second phase of Reunification Therapy is to address any blaming issues from the past, as the lack of acknowledgement of past injustices is often what keeps parents stuck in old cycles of anger and the pointing of fingers. Children are also involved, and the work with them focuses on releasing any feelings they have of anger, resentment, abandonment, self-blame, or guilt. If either parent demonstrates resistance to the process - as evidenced by their pattern of attendance and participation in therapy, that resistance will be discussed and steps taken to address it so it no longer obstructs the process.
Phase III: Integration
For some families, this phase signals the initiation of visitation. Other families will have had some schedule of parenting time already in place. The type and frequency of visitation will vary according to a number of factors. Regardless of what the visitation looks like, the message sent to the child by the estranged parent is one of caring, interest, and purpose. The message sent to the child by the non-estranged parent is one of support for the child’s relationship with each parent.
If you believe reunification therapy would be useful for your family or it has been ordered by the court, contact me at 651-882-6234. We can discuss your unique situation and how the process might support the development of more positive child-parent relationships.