What Is Reunification Therapy & Who Can It Help?

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woman considering reunification therapy

Reunification therapy is a forward-thinking therapeutic approach used to create or re-establish bonds between alienated children and their parents. This approach focuses primarily on rebuilding lost, broken, or fragmented relationships.

A core feature of reunification therapy is rebuilding trust between the child and estranged parent. If conducted in a caring, supportive environment by a trained mental health professional, reunification therapy can lead to reconciliation between parent and child.

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When is reunification therapy needed?

Reunification therapy can be very effective when relationships between a parent and child are hostile, uncertain, or absent.

The goals of reunification therapy are determined after identifying the factors contributing to the estranged relationship and by working on communication, trust, and residual feelings contributing to the estrangement.

Evidence of progress toward reunification can be seen when there is a decrease in supervised interactions between parent and child, and the child appears less anxious around their parent. This means trust is building.

However, reunification therapy should only take place after there has been a thorough examination of the reasons behind the absence or fragment of the relationship.

Once the determination that the child’s feelings, ambivalence, and refusal to see a parent are stemming from alienation, rather than from issues related to physical, psychological, sexual abuse, or estranging behaviors of the “alienated” parent.

Behaviors that include significant abuse can create additional stressors for the child or lead to trauma.

Listening to kids is essential in reunification therapy.

Using age-appropriate language when speaking to a child is essential to understanding the child’s feeling about their parent.

Unfortunately, when working with children, it's important to listen without drawing inferences. Often, when inferences are drawn, alienation is increased, rather than decreased.

It's not uncommon for alienated children to express feelings that are not based on reality. Their reality may also be distorted.

Too often, when a child is alienated, they cannot think of a reason to love their parent, do not have favorable memories, or insist their parent does not love them.

Reunification therapy aims to disturb the “system” by challenging the feelings and perceptions of the child, rather than reinforcing them and legitimizing them.

Unlike individual child therapists, reunification therapists are often seen as the “enemy” trying to force them to reconcile with a parent they are convinced they don't like, or that doesn’t care about them, who they never want to see or speak to again.

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Reunificaiton therapy can help rebuild trust.

Reunification therapy is useful when applied to relationships between alienated children and estranged parents. Therapy can help children build and enhance relationships between parents, other family members, and caregivers.

In reunification therapy, the goals are limited to re-establishing a viable relationship between parent and child.

Alienation and estrangement can be due in part to child protective involvement, divorce, parental separation, military, incarceration, work obligations, new marriages, step children, and other significant life changes.

Reunification therapy can help in instances of:

  • Child(ren) whose relationship with a parent has been undermined or fragmented.
  • Child(ren) whose parents have had a lengthy incarceration.
  • Child(ren) who have been routinely alienated by one parent to dislike or be afraid of the other parent.
  • Child(ren) whose parents work excessively, and the child has expressed feelings of being unloved or less important to their parent’s job.
  • Child(ren) whose parents travel a lot and does not spend sufficient time with the child, e.g., a military parent.
  • Child(ren) whose parents are divorced or separated, and one badmouths the other.

When children grow up in an atmosphere of parental alienation, their primary role model is a maladaptive, dysfunctional parent.

It is for this reason that many divorce specialists recommend custody reversal in such cases, or at least a period of separation between a child and an alienating parent during the reunification process with an alienated parent.

Every child deserves the opportunity to have a healthy, nurturing, loving relationship with both parents whenever possible.

Denying a child the opportunity to love and be loved by both parents can lead to challenges with communication, managing feelings, establishing and maintaining relationships, and appropriately managing stressors of life.

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Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a psychologist who has engaged in extensive work and research on familial relationships, family trauma, and dysfunctions. To know more, visit Family Matters Counseling Group.