What Is Reunification Therapy?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning:  Please be advised that the below article on reunification therapy might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse, and substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Divorce can be challenging for a family, no matter the circumstances. Reunification therapy is intended to guide a parent and a child to reunify and connect after divorce or legal custody challenges. Children are often significantly negatively impacted by divorce, and reunification therapy may mitigate this negative impact for some families. However, there are some controversies around this modality, and it can be crucial to consider potential downsides before choosing a therapist.

Divorce is complicated - work through it in therapy

What is reunification therapy?

Children are often significantly impacted by divorce or separation, potentially resulting in challenges in attachment or connection with a parent or caregiver. During and after a divorce, a child may be emotionally impacted for various reasons, even if a parent is trying to connect. In these situations, reunification therapy may allow parents and children to work toward improved communication or a strengthened emotional connection.

Reunification therapy is a modality designed to support children in reconnecting with their parents, led by a qualified reunification therapist. Reunification therapy might address separation, contact difficulties, or past wounds that are difficult to work through. It might also help separated or divorced families work through thought-disordered patterns and behaviors, as well as challenges like depression and anxiety.

Often, those who have gone through a high-conflict divorce or separation may struggle to avoid conflict and reconnect with their children. Studies show that children of any age are at a higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to divorce. A therapist may be a helpful support option when the therapeutic practice is consented to by the child and parent

Often, the goal of the reunification modality is to work with clients in a treatment setting to cultivate their ability to enjoy healthy family relationships. Common challenges that may come up in reunification therapy include the child’s relationship with each parent, whether there is an alienated parent and a favored parent, navigating child protective services, discussing foster care, the favored parent’s negative beliefs about the other parent, and other estrangement topics.

The controversy behind reunification therapy

Reunification therapy may not be beneficial in every case, especially when it is non-consensually pushed on a child. Often, reunification therapy is court-ordered, meaning a child and their parent are legally required to attend. However, for a child who has experienced trauma at the hands of a parent or caregiver, reuniting with this caregiver may cause more trauma or emotional distress. In addition, some children report being physically forced to attend sessions against their will, which can be severely distressing or traumatic.

Children may have healthy reasons for avoiding a parent, even if a court has not determined that the parent is a danger to the child. Factors like emotional abuse, manipulation, gaslighting, favoritism, and other unhealthy or abusive behaviors against a child can make a parent or caregiver a source of trauma or distress for that child. Divorce may not be the only denominator in why a child becomes estranged from a parent.

Divorce can also be a traumatic event. How a child connects with their parents or caregivers may change as they process divorce. It may be healthiest to ensure a child can process what occurred on their own time without being forced to talk about it with someone they’re uncomfortable talking to.

Although court-ordered therapy is legally binding, parents and caregivers might help make the process easier for a child by paying attention to their body language, being open to hearing them in therapy, and ensuring they have a voice in the type of relationship they’re comfortable having at each point in therapy. It may also be helpful to enroll a child in individual therapy so they have an outlet where they can talk about their experiences without a parent present.

If you are an adult facing or witnessing physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual, spiritual, digital, or mental abuse or stalking, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

If you’re a teen or child experiencing or witnessing abuse of any kind from a family member or caregiver, reach out to the Child Help Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 or use the online chat feature.

How is reunification therapy sought?

Reunification therapy can be entered voluntarily. However, it is often compulsory, such as in the case of court orders set by judges and attorneys. Some reunification therapy efforts are court-ordered to attempt to avoid abandonment by parents who have left a child or to try to ensure one parent or the other does not face alienation from their children in a divorce. Others are parent-initiated, which might occur when a parent believes their family dynamic could benefit from support. In these cases, the parent chooses to seek reunification parenting. However, it can be beneficial for parents to consider whether this modality would benefit their child before seeking it.

Children may be uncertain about being reunited with their parents. Not all the parties may be willing to work with reunification therapists. In some cases, there may be a stronger connection between one parent and the child and hostility between the child and the other parent.

Various factors can contribute to parent-child alienation, including divorce conflict, abuse, emotional neglect, or a parent attempting to alienate a child from their other caregiver. In complex cases, it may be helpful for all parents and the child to have individual therapy or family therapy together, if possible. However, reunification therapy may be unhealthy if the child is not consenting to it. Children are people, too, and giving them free will over their bodies, minds, and emotions can be crucial.

When reunification therapy involves the entire family, including extended family members, a custody reversal, a custody battle, or other complications, it may be complicated to resolve within the family. Therapists may attempt to improve a multitude of dynamics, some of which may be long-standing and tenuously held.

Although therapy can seem frightening, especially when court-ordered, some families turn to reunification programs to ease the transition from alienated or disconnected to functioning. However, it can be beneficial to note that reunification therapy may not necessarily yield the results one is looking for, as children or parents may not be open to the process, and it could cause more harm.

The delivery of this modality

Reunification therapy is often delivered in a clinical setting but may also be delivered via a home visit or a similar arrangement. Meetings can also occur on neutral grounds, 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. This modality might be recommended due to a court order in the case of divorce 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 apart. The circumstances of the parent-child relationship and the nature of the parent’s divorce may determine the details of the reunification program.

Reunification therapy often encourages individual therapy in tandem to process what is happening in reunification therapy. The same therapist or a separate provider might deliver these sessions. Individual therapy can allow parents or the child to work on challenges related to the divorce and the nature of the parent-child relationship. The therapist may focus on potentially reuniting children with an estranged parent or parents. It may also encourage everyone in the family to engage in healthy, honest behaviors and increase communication to prevent future challenges.

Why might reunification therapy be court-ordered?

When a court mandates reunification therapy, it may be part of a couple's divorce or custody proceedings. Below are some of the reasons a judge might order this type of therapy:

  • Parent estrangement: In some divorce proceedings, one parent might attempt to refuse to allow the other to see their children or relocate the family without the other parent's consent, leading to parental estrangement.
  • Failure to appear in court: If a parent leaves the family at any point, fails to appear at scheduled court hearings, or is in any way missing throughout the proceedings, a court might order the family to undergo reunification therapy to ensure that the parent is parenting their child.
  • Children not seeing non-custodial parents: 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, a court might order reunification therapy to help a child work through any challenges of these visits.
Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Working with a reunification therapist

Reunification therapy or family therapy often begins with an intake assessment delivered by a licensed therapist. These assessments evaluate what challenges might exist among the parents and children in the attempt to develop a treatment plan that considers the needs of both the parent and child. The therapist may also have one-on-one sessions with the parent and child to gauge how both feel about the process.

From there, therapists may engage the parents and children in exercises designed to improve connection and communication. These exercises might include playing games or having conversations to enhance bonding. The therapist might use talk therapy techniques for older children to start the reunification process. However, younger children may also benefit from this approach.

As reunification therapy progresses, families may complete additional assessments to evaluate the modality's efficacy. If they improve, the therapist may continue on the given path. If challenges continue to arise, new strategies might be implemented. Therapists may provide separate homework, practice areas, or assignments if one parent is doing more work than the other.

After some time, if the relationship is continually shrouded in dysfunction, the court may retract the order or consider alternatives, such as severing parental rights. In the case where reunification therapy has caused mental health challenges for a child, it may be beneficial to enroll them in individual therapy after the fact to support them as they navigate difficult emotions.

When is reunification family therapy not considered?

Note: Consult a family or divorce lawyer when dealing with legal matters. The information in this article is not a replacement for legal advice.

If a parent is known to have a substance use disorder or severe mental illness, a court may not order reunification therapy. If the court does issue therapy, despite the presence of these challenges, it may be to establish a safe point of contact rather than an ongoing relationship between parents and children.

Because studies demonstrate the importance of a healthy family system in children's overall health, courts may order therapy for children or their parents. The goal of therapy may be to adopt a healthy attachment between parent and child, even if the child cannot be fully emotionally dependent on the parent.

Parental alienation can be complex for children, and reunification may be helpful in some cases. However, it can also be crucial for this process to consider the child's needs and what they have asked for. Do not physically force a child into sessions. Talk to your lawyer if a child refuses reunification therapy, as there may be ways to appeal the court order or help the child understand the process.

There are some circumstances in which a court might not order reunification therapy. These cases can involve extreme abuse, substance use, domestic violence, or purposeful and consistent abandonment. In these cases, custodial parents may ask the court to sever the other parent's parental rights rather than seeking reunification or therapy intervention.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Who is involved in the reunification therapy process?

Social workers, lawyers, therapists, and court officials may all take steps toward reunification. Family law practitioners may also be helpful. Depending on the exact factors involved, the estranged parent’s reaction, and the state of the parents and child or children involved, various routes can be explored. Often, the first step in reunification therapy is finding a mediator to discuss the possibility with a lawyer, judge, or another court official. From there, the court might order the therapy.

If the court is not involved, and you are independently seeking reunification therapy, you may seek a therapist who is licensed in their state and has experience in this form of support. Talk to your child before considering this form of therapy, as it has been associated with some controversy and could be more harmful than supportive, depending on the situation. Family therapy is an alternative to reunification therapy and is a way for children and their families to work through challenges via evidence-based modalities.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Divorce is complicated - work through it in therapy

Alternative support options

In some cases, in-person therapy can be challenging to find and may not be beneficial. Barriers like finances, location, or a busy divorce process can prevent individuals from accessing in-person appointments. In these cases, online therapy may be a helpful way for parents or teen children to receive individual support.

Through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp for adults or TeenCounseling for teens aged 13 to 19, you may access affordable, accessible, and convenient care from home. Online therapy platforms can offer unique resources like group sessions, worksheets, and goal tracking. Overall, online therapy has been proven just as effective as in-person therapy. For example, one study found that people who used an internet-based service experienced a significant decrease in the severity of their depression symptoms.

Counselor reviews

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp therapists, 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!!"

"Dr. Martin is everything I could want in a therapist: Experienced, empathetic, intelligent, and open-minded. She’s been great in my family situation and I would not hesitate to recommend her for yours.”


Reunification therapy is sometimes considered in the case of child-parent estrangement due to divorce or custody challenges. However, it may not be the best choice for everyone. Family therapy can be a beneficial way to work through communication, attachment, and emotional challenges. If you have received a court order for reunification therapy, consult your lawyer to discuss options.

In addition, parents may benefit from talking with their children about this court order before attending therapy. Individual therapy alongside reunification therapy may make the process more comfortable for everyone involved. For accessible and affordable individual support, you might also consider talking to an online therapist. However, note that online therapy platforms do not work with court orders. 

Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started