Reunification therapy is often beneficial when a therapeutic intervention is needed to improve or re-establish a parent-child relationship. A parent may have been absent from a child's life for an extended period of time, or there may even be a history of some form of abuse that the child has witnessed or was a victim of. The structured Reunification Process can assess the potential for reunification as well as assist in improving parent-child contact in a safe environment.
Often it is important for the parents and child each to have his/her own individual therapist as they all proceed through this difficult process. The parent benefits with individual therapy in that the focus of the therapy is on how to support the child's feelings and actions. The child benefits with individual therapy in that he or she can have a supportive environment in which to process issues that may arise from the reunification process. The reunification therapist may consult with the child's therapist throughout the process in order to appropriately address the child's needs.
The custodial parent is kept apprised of how the sessions are progressing in order for that parent to support the visiting child. The reunification therapist cannot also be the individual therapist for the clients. Preparation materials for reunification are provided to both parents. A report is often required by the court or is requested by a client.
In a divorced or separated family, a parent can sometimes lose contact with a child for any number of reasons. Courts may recommend that a therapist be used for the purpose of gradually introducing or reintroducing a child to a biological parent. In other cases, the parents or the attorneys will suggest such a course of action. When a therapist is asked to do this sort of treatment, there are several factors to keep in mind:
- First, the therapist should make contact with and gain at least a minimum of trust with both biological parents. This is crucially important so that the work can begin on an even playing field. Both parents need to sense a strong degree of fairness and neutrality from the therapist, in order for them to allow the child to move forward in the process and not sabotage it (consciously or unconsciously). The therapist should offer to speak with both parents over the phone before any in-person contact, setting the tone for even-handedness from the start. The initiating parent should be asked how it might be best to make contact with the other parent in order to give the best possible opportunity for connection and success.
- The therapist should then decide how to structure the first session. It is important to determine whether the child is prepared to meet with the unfamiliar parent without the familiar parent present, or whether s/he needs the transitional safety of the presence of the familiar parent. If the parents are experiencing high conflict already over this issue, or one is actively opposing the process, it is often wise to begin the process without the child, by gaining the cooperation of both parents. Often the only real leverage the therapist will have with the parents is his/her focus on the well-being of the child. As a general rule, children are best off when they have the loving presence of both parents in their lives. Most parents, even those with severe problems, can be seen as having something of value to offer to their children, and the therapist needs to capitalize on this.
- If the parents have drug/alcohol issues or are limited in their ability to handle conflict in healthy ways, the therapist may wish to put off the parental reunification until the parents have begun to work on those issues (with drug or alcohol treatment programs, anger management treatment, etc.). This preparatory work can make a difference between a successful reunification and a continued separation between child and parent.
- The therapist may benefit from contact with other professionals dealing with the case, such as therapists for any of the family members, the parenting coordinator, and/or child custody evaluators. It is necessary to gain written releases of information whenever the reunification therapist makes collateral contacts.
- The therapist then meets with the family, and proceeds to work with the appropriate members to deal with whatever issues are present. Some education may be necessary with the adults, about the importance and the how-to's of co-parenting, about child development and the effects of separation/divorce on children, and about how to keep children out of the middle. With children present during reunification sessions, the therapist will respond to questions the child has about the previous absence of the parent, and to help the parent find appropriate answers to those questions while remaining supportive of the relationship the child has with the familiar parent. The therapist will also help the child by normalizing the kinds of feelings s/he is likely to be having toward either or both parents, to encourage the healthy expression of such feelings, and to teach communication skills and model respectful engagement.
- At all times it is important for the therapist to remain alert to the possibility of one parent (or both) inhibiting the child's relationship with the other parent. This phenomenon can be blatant or subtle, and needs to be addressed as soon as this appears to be occurring. It is critical that the therapist reassure the parents that s/he understands the parent wants the best for the child, and at the same time to gently confront the parent about separating his/her feelings toward the other parent from the child's experience of that parent. The relationship the familiar parent has with the child will maintain if s/he allows the child to build a relationship with the other parent. Addressing these concerns is often very helpful. At times it might be wise to recommend individual therapy for one or both parents to deal with these concerns.
- Another notion to underline with the child is that all humans have strong points and flaws, and that it is possible to perceive both parents in this light. This can allow the child to receive from the parents what they have to offer the child, while setting limits in some way against the behaviors and traits that the child does not want in a parent. As the relationship grows, the therapist can help the child and parent to choose some ways of interacting that are pleasurable for both, and help them begin to discuss some of those activities.
- The next step would be to expand the connection to the world outside of the sessions. For preschool children, the interactions outside of session can begin in gradual ways such as a meeting in a park with both parents present. The familiar parent can be present at a distance that is comfortable, so that the child can see her/him and still gain some experience of the less familiar parent. This transitional way of interacting can go on as long as the child needs it, until everyone is more comfortable. If these interactions are framed as "experiments," this leaves the family members freer to think through what is working and what is not, rather than assuming that the entire process is failing or succeeding after individual meetings.
- The therapist will probably be needed to debrief the parent(s) after such encounters, helping to analyze what worked and what did not work and as well, helping the parent respond in appropriate ways to the child's concerns, so as to encourage the development of a healthy relationship. Once the therapist assesses that the process is well under way, s/he can end the reunification therapy treatment; making sure the family knows that the therapist will remain available if needed. Unsupervised contacts between the child and the reunifying parent can then be recommended.
- Lastly, a therapist doing this kind of work should remain open to receiving professional support, by case consultations and checking with other professionals working with the family. This work can be very difficult, but also is potentially very satisfying when one sees progress among family members.
Typical Parental Reunification Therapy Session Protocol:
- Intake session(s) with the parent seeking reunification – 1-4 hours
- Intake session(s) with the custodial parent – 1-4 hours
- Intake sessions (1 hour) with the child/ren in preparation for the joint reunification sessions: 2-4 sessions
- Reunification sessions with parent and child (1 hour) - 4-8 sessions or more
Dr. Silikovitz provides Reunification Therapy, implementing a court order or consent order. He will likely be required to report to the court regarding progress and obstacles to progress.
Because reunification therapy sessions are forensic services and take place in a legal arena, under the scrutiny of the judge and/or the parties’ attorneys, this process is NOT reimbursable via major medical insurance. These services are not medically necessary.
Dr. Silikovitz will not distribute or file any statements or receipts that may be used for any party’s major medical health insurance reimbursement.