Many know Reunification Therapy (RT) as reunifying a child with their ‘estranged’ parent(s). There are many reasons why a child(ren) may be separated or estranged from one parent or both, such as Child Protective Services (CPS) conclude enough evidence for abuse or unsafe environment where the children are placed in foster care for a while until the parents are stabilized. Other reasons may be one parent is deported to their birth country, and the child remains in the United States; one parent suffers from severe mental health issues untreated, extreme substance abuse issues that dampens their parenting abilities, physical/mental/emotional abuse, severe neglect, parental alienation, children and teenagers decide due to the impact of their negative relationship with that parent. Unfortunately, many parents fighting in the U.S. family court systems over child custody; the children eventually align with one parent because they are in the middle and realize it is easier to be on one side rather than in the middle. This article will discuss child custody, reunification therapy, and does it work during high conflict custody cases?
High conflict custody cases result in less than ten percent of all the child custody cases in the United States. Out of these high conflict custody cases, majority, if not all of them result in some type of services recommended by the courts (Guardian Ad Litems, Parenting Coordinators, Reunification Therapy, Parenting Evaluations, etc). Once professionals have been court ordered to provide services to this family, the high conflicted parents begin their journey in seeking the ‘best fit’ for their situation. It is best for high conflict custody (HCC) to name professionals in their legal documents so not too much time goes by and helps alleviate ‘some’ additional conflict.
In some of these HCC one parent is estranged from their children for the reasons stated above. When this happens, reunification therapy may be ordered to help the estranged parent and child(ren) reconcile. Reunification Therapy (RT) is specialized, and should be trained in this area in order to help the family. Reunification Therapist’s (RT) take the role as helping the family, educating the family, providing co-parenting training, case-management, knowing the basics of family law, and working with both parents. RT is not confidential to the parties because their role is to assist the family to reunify, and this may include reports to the courts, conference calls with attorneys, and speaking with other professionals involved on this case.
Reunification Therapy sounds fairly straight forward. However, this is far from the reality. Majority of these parents are highly emotional, and have difficulty separating what is ‘truly’ best for the children, and what they feel is in the child’s best interests. The RT assigned to work with these families must remain neutral and professional. Majority of the ‘favored’ parents may believe the RT has sided with the ‘non-favored’ parent because the RT spends more time working with the non-favored parent and children. The RT is trying to reunify the child(ren) and the non-favored parent, and is spending time working with this family system. The RT communicates with the favored parent as it relates to communication, coordinating transportation and appointments, and behaviors that may be causing the children to react this way toward their non-favored parent. Favored parents may take the RT as ‘siding’ when the RT is working for the entire family system. Remember, these HCC are highly emotional, and have difficulty being logical during these challenging times. The RT is able to be an objective party to this family, and can hopefully help this family without incurring more legal costs (emotionally and physically).
Let’s face it though, these parent’s are in high conflict, and thinking emotionally. Regardless of the RT’s effort, one or both of the parent’s will not be happy with the treatment plan, outcome, and/or recommendations. The ‘favored’ parent typically does not want the ‘non-favored (targeted) parent’ to have anything to do with the children, so how is this helping the ‘favored’ parent? Additionally, when RT is done correctly, the RT will be able to identify the problems in the child-parent relationship, and when this is exposed, one or both of the parents will not be happy and may cause more conflict. The RT must walk the line carefully when working with these HCC because of their emotions and belief systems. Unfortunately, the ‘favored’ parent begins to feel ‘left out’, and begin to show the children sadness. Although this is the is the ‘favored’ parent issue, the children feel a sense of devotion toward their ‘favored’ parent, and begin to blame the ‘targeted’ parent for their ‘favored’ parents emotional grief.
When the child(ren) experience a remotely positive experience with their ‘targeted’ parent, the child(ren)’s emotional attachment begins to form until they return home to their ‘favored’ parent. In order to live peacefully and not feel guilty, the child understands (unconsciously) they must disengage their feelings from their ‘targeted’ parent, and focus on their ‘favored’ parent. Eventually the ‘favored’ parent emotions show the children that their ‘other/targeted’ parent is abusive and does not want to really see them, the ‘targeted parent’ is just trying to get in the way of their everyday lives. Since the children lives majority (usually, not always) of the time with the ‘favored parent,’ this parent can convince them prior to seeing their ‘targeted’ parent. Although the ‘targeted’ parent is nice and kind when they spend time together, the children can become more rejecting and hostile of their ‘targeted’ parent. This is because of the kindness of the targeted parent increases the children’s confusion, and increase emotional pain for them, and the child misinterprets this ‘kindness’ as abuse from the ‘targeted’ parent (Childress, C. 2013).
Although the above sounds ‘crazy making’ this happens. Targeted parents and RT professionals that are trained in this area can identify with this. Qualified RT’s are aware of the process above, and the inner turmoil going on inside the child(ren), and can work with the child(ren) to have their own authentic feelings, and teach the child(ren) the difference between adult stuff and children/teenager stuff. The RT will also train the child(ren) to learn their own feelings, and that they are in charge of their own feelings, just as both their parents are in charge of their own feelings.
RT: “You don’t hate your mom/dad, you actually love him/her very much. You have not allowed yourself to love him/her because of all the craziness going on in the family. Now that you are free to form your own feelings and opinions, and have done your research, you are now able to freely love both parents. Once you let yourself express and receive love from your mom/dad, the pain you are experiencing will go away.”
The RT will also assist the ‘target’ parent in learning ways to be patient, and how to communicate with their resistant child. The RT will educate the ‘target’ parent about the turmoil their child is going through, and help them show their child compassion through the process of RT. The RT will help the child hear the ‘targeted’ parent’s story in a productive way, without blaming the ‘favored’ parent. Although this may confuse the child further, the RT will be able to go back to having the child be their own authentic person and to remind them they can form their own opinions. Once the child begins to see their truth and formulate their own opinions of the truth, they can usually let their guard down and allow their ‘targeted’ parent into their world. This may take many months (or not).
The RT will work with the ‘favored’ parent as well, and offer compassion with firm boundaries. The RT will educate the ‘favored’ parent about what is going on, and try to separate the alignment that has been going on.
RT is a specified field, and only qualified RT’s should perform this type of work. There are various reasons for reunification therapy, however, when the situation is involving a high conflict custody case, the situation above mostly applies. RT can work as long as the RT is trained, and able to work with the entire family system in a productive manner. The RT must set boundaries, and be prepared for the ‘favored’ parent to get upset with them. The RT’s main goal is to reunify the child and ‘targeted’ parent, and not get into the middle of the custody battle.
For those going through RT at this time, or attempting to, review the qualifications of the RT, and make a decision based on experience and qualifications. Do your homework, and be proactive in seeing your children. Time is essential when reunifying with your children, the more time that goes by, the more challenges it presents.
Article written by Rochelle Long, MA, LMHC
Long Counseling and Evaluation Services, PLLC/www.longcounseling.com
Baker, AJL (2014). The High-Conflict Custody Battle: Protect Yourself and Your Kids from a Toxic Divorce, False Accusations, and Parental Alienation. Oakland, USA: New Harbinger.
Kay, B. (2013). Barbara Kay: Teaching children to hate the ex. National Post, May 23, 2013.
Pingitore, Marco. “Parental Alienation, Interview with Craig Childress”. Italian Society of Forensic Science. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
Warshak, R. A. (2010). Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing. New York: Harper Collins.