The Challenge and Hope of Reunification Therapy
Priscilla Singleton, MSW, LMFT, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and a marriage and family therapist. Ms. Singleton’s areas of expertise are separating and divorcing families, adoption, promotion of child and adolescent connection in their families, children of divorce, and co-parent counseling. Ms. Singleton has been in practice for over 25 years.
Sometimes a parent can lose contact with a child during the challenging and confusing process of separation and divorce. It is devastating to the family when this occurs and careful and immediate intervention is necessary to decrease the likelihood of lifelong difficulties.
The process of reunification and the role of the reunification therapist are complex:
- First and foremost, the reunification therapist has to build a trusting, therapeutic relationship with the children. That can take time, because children who are in the midst of the reunification process tend to be more frightened, anxious, and mistrusting of adults in their world, particularly new adults.
- It is equally important that both parents trust the reunification therapist’s clinical experience and believe that the reunification therapist has their children’s best interest at heart. Both parents should feel understood and supported by the reunification therapist even though the reunification therapist may be asking both of them to act outside of their current beliefs and comfort zones.
- It is the reunification therapist’s role to hold each parent accountable for the steps each has to take to ensure a successful reunification. It is never appropriate for the reunification therapist to cast blame or promote the notion that one parent is solely responsible for the struggle. Ultimately, both parents must believe that the reunification therapist is not taking sides in the parents’ conflict and is strictly acting on behalf of their children and on behalf of their children’s task of reunification. The past hurts, anger, and failures in the marriage must be released in order to make way for a new beginning as equal co-parents.
- Individual therapy for each parent is necessary to separate out individual challenges that may be impeding the progress of the reunification.
- It is also essential that the professionals involved work in a collaborative spirit, giving hope to the family that one plan can evolve to successfully move the family forward.
- Both parents have to have equal trust in all the professionals involved to avoid a split that will only promote ongoing conflict.
The literature consistently reports that alienated children are at risk for emotional distress and adjustment difficulties, and at greater risk than children from litigating families who are not alienated (Bala and Fidler, 2010).
Clinical observations, case reviews, and qualitative and empirical studies consistently indicate that alienated children may exhibit:
- poor reality testing;
- illogical cognitive operations;
- simplistic and rigid information processing;
- inaccurate or distorted interpersonal perceptions;
- disturbed and compromised internal functioning;
- low self-esteem (internalized negative parts of rejected parents, self doubt about own perceptions, self-blame for rejecting parent or abandoning siblings, mistrust, feeling unworthy or unloved, feeling abandoned) or inflated self-esteem or omnipotence;
- gender-identity problems;
- poor differentiation of self (enmeshment);
- aggression and conduct disorders;
- disregard for social norms and authority;
- poor impulse control;
- emotional constriction, passivity, or dependence; and
- lack of remorse or guilt (Bala and Fidler, 2010).
Amy Baker conducted a qualitative, retrospective study of adults alienated as children. Baker reported that most of the adults distinctly recalled claiming during childhood that they hated or feared their rejected parent and on some level did have negative feelings, but also that they did not want that parent to walk away from them and secretly hoped that someone would realize that they did not mean what they said (Bala and Fidler, 2010). These findings behoove us all to strive to find the complexities in these heartbreaking situations and to never respond casually or carelessly to what our children are attempting to express to us.
Success in the reunification process will be achieved if both parents place equal faith in the professionals they engage.
It is important that parents:
- Engage a reunification therapist that they both trust and believe will work well with their children;
- Engage a reunification therapist who understands the role of the parent coordinator and is willing to work in tandem with him/her;
- Support each other’s role as parent to the children in words and actions;
- Make decisions about the children in meetings with the parent coordinator and carry out those plans as agreed upon in the meeting;
- Refrain from contacting the reunification therapist and parent coordinator to change an already agreed upon plan; and
- Make changes in the plan only in the presence of the parent coordinator with both parties present.
Perhaps, most importantly, individual therapy for both parents is vital. Each parent will need individual support to deal with the emotional stressors inherent in the divorce process and the reunification process. Otherwise, parents are likely to engage their children, and or the professionals involved, in ways that are counterproductive or destructive to the reunification process. It is essential that the professionals involved have expertise in working with families experiencing high-conflict divorce, otherwise, they too can engage this complex process in ways that are counterproductive and, at times, destructive.
Bala, N. and Fidler, B.J., (2010). Children resisting post separation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums. Family Court Review, 48, 10-47.
Interested in Reunification Therapy?
Priscilla Singleton, MSW, LMFT, LCSW sees clients at our Exton and Center City Offices. Our staff of over 100 therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and interns practice at 10 locations in the greater Philadelphia area. Online Therapy is also available. We help people of all backgrounds live their best lives by improving their important relationships. We are committed to providing high-quality counseling services to all, regardless of ability to pay. Request your first appointment today.