What Is Reunification Therapy And How Can It Help?
Updated November 08, 2019
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Divorce and separation are rough on a family, no matter the circumstances. Reunification therapy is therapy designed to heal the relationship between a parent and child torn apart by divorce.
In most standard divorce cases, parents are awarded joint custody or partial parental rights. Ideally, barring cases of abuse or neglect, both parents are awarded as much time with their children as possible. Unfortunately, though, this is not always the case-in some divorces, parents and children lose touch. There are times when losing touch is malicious, as in the case of one parent intentionally taking their children away from another. But other times, one parent has to move away for work or other family issues, and seeing their children is simply not a financial possibility. Sadly, in still other cases, the parent and children lose touch because that parent fails to make time with their children a priority.
Whatever the exact situation, reunification therapy seeks to reunite parents and children, to help them enjoy a strong relationship that will provide an adequate amount of emotional connection and support. Studies consistently demonstrate that children are better off in every way (socially, academically, emotionally, etc.) if they have both of their parents in their lives. Reunification, then, is not merely a matter of trying to reunite a family, but is a therapy modality designed to improve the lives of children through their parental relationships.
How Reunification Therapy is Delivered
Reunification therapy can be entered into voluntarily, but in some cases it may be compulsory. Some therapy efforts are court-ordered to make sure children are not abandoned by wayward parents. Others are parent-initiated when parents feel their family dynamic needs improvement. Reunification therapy can be difficult when children are reticent or uncertain about being reunited with their parents, but is especially problematic when court-ordered. Not all the parties may be willing, so therapists are enlisted to improve a multitude of dynamics, many of which might be long standing and tenuously held. Although reunification therapy can seem frightening-especially if it's court-ordered-many families turn to this form of counseling to ease the transition from alienated to fully functional.
Reunification therapy is usually delivered in a clinical setting, but may also be delivered via a home visit or a similar arrangement. Meetings can also occur on neutral ground, such as a foster parent's home, or a state-provided meeting facility. Because reunification therapy is often offered to families with a history of dysfunction or difficulty, the avenues available and the reasons for this form of therapeutic intervention are vast. It can be ordered by the court in the case of divorce, certainly, but can also be court-ordered in the case of a child who has been removed by the state, but is being released back to their parents after a period of time apart.
Reunification therapy often encourages the use of individual therapy either in conjunction with the therapy (meaning it is delivered by the same therapist), or outside of the therapy. This allows parents the space and ability to work on any personal issues that may have contributed to the divorce, separation from their children, or any other problematic areas of their family's life. Reunification therapy focuses on making sure parents and children are united and together, but also hopes to encourage everyone in the family to engage in healthy, honest behaviors and increased communication to prevent issues in the future.
Court-Ordered Reunification Therapy: Who Orders It and Why?
In some cases, this particular therapy modality is not one entered into willingly, but is compulsory. Typically, it's mandated by family court, but can also be ordered as a part of a couple's divorce proceedings. So why might a court order reunification therapy?
1) One or both parents have become estranged from their children. In some divorce proceedings, parents are unable to keep their behavior civil, and resort to cruel words, violence, or manipulation in order to achieve a certain hope or desire. In these cases, one parent might refuse to allow the other to see their children, or a parent might relocate the family without the other parent's consent. These are all instances in which a court might mandate reunification therapy.
2) One parent skipped out on the family or divorce proceedings. If a parent left the family at any point, failed to appear at scheduled court hearings, or was in any way missing throughout the proceedings, a court might order the family to undergo reunification therapy to make sure the children and parents are able to function and move forward.
3) Children struggle to visit with the non-custodial parent. In some cases, one parent is awarded primary custody of a child, while the other is considered the non-custodial parent, or the parent who does not continually live with the child. If children struggle to attend meetings, overnight visits, or other visits with the non-custodial parents, without the presence of abuse or some other legitimate concern, a court might order reunification therapy to help a child feel safer and more comfortable with their visitation arrangement.
What Does Reunification Therapy Look Like?
In most cases, this form of therapy begins with an intake assessment delivered by an experienced therapist. These assessments evaluate what the core issues might exist among the parents and children to more effectively weed out any issues and to improve communication and comfort within the family.
From there, therapists will likely begin to engage the parents and children in exercises designed to improve connection and communication. For young children, this might be through playing games or doing simple exercises to improve attachment, bonding, and comfort. In older children, this might involve talk therapy as a means to address the children's reticence, or parents' difficulty in being present. Regardless of the age, talk therapy will come into play.
As therapy progresses, families are usually asked to complete additional assessments to evaluate the efficacy of the modality. If families are showing improvement, the therapist will continue on the given path, and if the family is not, new strategies will be implemented. After a period, however, if the relationship is continually shrouded in dysfunction, the court may retract the order, or consider other alternatives, such as severing parental rights.
When Is Reunification Therapy Not Considered?
If the parent is a known or suspected abuser of alcohol or drugs, a court is unlikely to order this type of therapy. If the court does issue reunification therapy, despite the presence of these issues, this is typically only to establish a safe point of contact, rather than an ongoing, private relationship between parents and children. Because many studies demonstrate the importance of a strong, stable family system in the overall health of children, many courts will order some form of therapy, even in abuse cases, in order to facilitate a relationship, however distant it might be.
There are some circumstances, however, in which a court will never order reunification therapy. These cases typically involve extreme abuse or willing and consistent abandonment. In these cases, many custodial parents prefer to move forward with severing parental rights, rather than trying to engage in some form of rehabilitation or therapy intervention.
Who Can Help?
Social workers, lawyers, therapists, and court officials can all help in taking steps toward reunification when one parent has abandoned their children. Depending on the exact factors involved, and the state of the parents and children involved, there are many different routes to explore when considering the reunification process. Often, the first step in reunification therapy is finding a mediator who is able to discuss the possibility with a lawyer, judge, or other court official. From there, the court can order reunification therapy.
If the court is not involved, and you are independently seeking reunification therapy, the first step is finding a therapist able to deliver this particular form of therapy with the sensitivity, tact, and care that is required. For many, this means finding a therapist familiar with the practice itself, but it can also mean seeking out therapist with flexible modes of interaction, such as Skype, or other online portals.
BetterHelp's team of mental health professionals can help in the reunification process by offering safe, affordable care online, allowing parents and children to engage in one-on-one therapy that can help ease some of the difficulty involved in the reunification therapy process. Because many reunification sessions ask parents and children to dig deep into emotional wounds, fears, and concerns, enlisting an outside therapist to help with individual issues is a good idea, and can actually speed along the reunification process. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from parents experiencing similar issues.
"Tammi has made such a difference in my life. Had I not had her help I'm pretty sure I would've lost all contact with my 19-year-old daughter who chose to live with her father. She understands teenagers and moms of teenagers! So kind, wise, experienced, compassionate, and level headed, I can't say enough good about her!!"
"When I signed up for BetterHelp I was in the midst of a major life crisis. I was seeking a compassionate, experienced counselor like Jillian to help me cope with the initial pain, anger, and anxiety. Also, I chose Jillian because in her self description she states, "I'm a big believer in seeing life challenges, especially the most painful ones, as a catalyst for self-discovery, personal growth, and positive change." This really resonated with me. I knew that I wanted my experience to be an opportunity for personal growth. I am incredibly grateful that Jillian indeed helped me grieve and work through the challenges of divorce and early motherhood. She helped me learn about myself and transform my life in a positive way. She offered practical, specific tools to incorporate into my daily routine. She helped me to reconnect with myself and clarify and move towards my life goals. She offered constructive advice for interacting with my ex-husband and maintaining boundaries. Through working with her I was able to care for myself so that I could be a mindful, present mama and really soak in the precious moments with my newborn daughter. My sessions with Jillian made a huge difference as I navigated this time in my life. I could not recommend her more highly."
Although receiving a court order for therapy might seem daunting, and finding a way to function as a family post-divorce might seem impossible, there is hope. Even families who have lost touch for years can learn how to work well together to create a harmonious situation. With everyone on board, and plenty of patience and hard work, estranged families can learn to reconnect and effectively reunite. Take the first step today.