Reunification or reintegration therapy: What is it? How does it work?
While described with different names, reunification or reintegration therapy is simply a special form of family therapy. Usually, it is requested when a child and a parent have had a significant breach in their relationship, due to being apart for a long period of time or, often, due to problems involved with a difficult divorce. Therapists have their own styles and approaches, but the goal is to seek the best relationship possible between the child and estranged parent. Sometimes the domestic or juvenile court orders this kind of therapy. Sometimes parents agree that the situation between child and parent is serious and seek the help themselves.
When I do reunification or reintegration therapy, I consider both parents as well as the child very important to the process. All three are my clients, as well as other children may be involved. I meet alone with each parent, to allow us a chance to get to know each other and to hear your concerns and your hopes. I also meet alone with the child or children, before starting the reunification process. Building trust and communication is really important for all involved.
The non-estranged or favored parent plays a key role in helping the reintegration process to succeed or fail and requires commitment and work on that parent's part. It can require putting away personal feelings, working on letting go of the past, setting aside past philosophies and opening up to a new way of seeing and doing things. This is not easy work and I understand that! Sometimes the non-estranged parent truly does not wish the child to be reunified with the other parent. On rare occasions there is enough reason for that to reconsider the work. Usually, though, the biggest hurdle for favored parents is to be open-minded and flexible enough to allow something new and healthy for the child to have a chance to grow. Estranged children really need their favored parent's support and encouragement for reunification to succeed.
Estranged or alienated parents also have a lot of work to do. A key piece for them is patience. Many times, these parents have not seen their children for weeks or months or even years. They may feel they have been treated unjustly and have a lot of anger toward the other parent or "the system." On the other hand, some parents know what role they have played in causing the separation between them and the child and have to recover from a lot of shame. Many estranged parents struggle with both anger and shame. It takes time for the process to get started, for me to build trust with each person, especially the child and the other parent, who, as noted above, is key to success. Owning up to past failings or even being patient as the child talks about things that might not be true is very challenging. We measure growth and change in small increments.
Much of the work of reunification or reintegration takes place outside of the therapy room. The favored parent tries to support the child's efforts in treatment and avoids saying negative things about the other parent. This is harder than it sounds most of the time, because it may be frightening or angering to think of the other parent coming back into the child's life. The favored parent has to work on his or her own feelings a lot.
In addition, part of the therapy usually involves the child gradually spending increasing time with the parent outside of the treatment room. This allows them to have small opportunities to get used to being together alone without overwhelming anyone involved. Sometimes a supervisor or the therapist herself participates, but often the child and parent spend their time without a third party monitoring. They may go out for a walk, a movie, ice cream, or a meal. Then in session, we can talk about how it felt, what went well, and what still needs attention. If court orders are in place, the child's time will gradually increase until it has met the court's orders, if possible. If not possible, the matter must go back to court or to a new agreement between the parents. In other cases, the reintegration therapy is more like a way to explore what works and what is possible between child and estranged parent.
Reintegration or reunification therapy is very challenging for children as well. They may have fears, realistic or otherwise, about the estranged parent. They may have untrue or distorted beliefs. Many of these children are not sure if their favored parent is really okay with them reconnecting with the other parent. they feel torn about their loyalties and about their emotional safety. It is important for both parents and tthe therapist to recognize the child's feelings and difficult position.
Does reunification therapy work? The answer, of course, is "it depends." How serious is the favored parent about giving the child and the other parent a real chance to heal, reconnect, and grow? How patient, tolerant, open, and humble can the estranged parent be? What supports or interferes with the child's trust in the therapist and in the process? Not all relationships can be healed. I believe, though, that with honesty, effort, and true good intentions on the part of both parents, many estranged parents and children can reconnect in healthy and important ways for the child.
For more information, please feel free to contact me. 720-493-4827.
Final thought: Seek peace and pursue it!
Marian Camden, Psy.D.