Childhood separation anxiety can cause various symptoms and be very difficult to overcome. Reunification therapy is one of several effective treatments for childhood separation anxiety that helps children overcome their fears and develop healthy social skills. This article provides more information and advice on seeking specialized treatment for childhood separation anxiety.
What Is Reunification Therapy?
Reunification therapy is a form of family psychotherapy. It is a short-term, intensive treatment aimed at helping children who have experienced parental alienation re-establish full and healthy relationships with the parent from whom they’ve been alienated.
In this therapy, the therapist creates an environment where the child and alienated parent can work out problems in their relationship, heal and restore their bond. In some cases, the therapist works with both parents and children. In other cases, the therapist may only work with the child.
When Is Reunification Therapy Recommended?
The court can order reunification therapy, or it can be sought voluntarily by the parents involved. It is usually recommended when:
- One parent has been absent from the child’s life for an extended period, possibly due to incarceration, illness, military service, or simply relocating to another state.
- The noncustodial parent (sometimes referred to as “the alienating parent”) has made the custodial parent (sometimes called “the victimized parent”) out to be the wrong person in front of the children; this behavior is sometimes referred to as parental alienation syndrome.
- There are abuse allegations against one or both parents. There is a history of domestic violence.
- The non-custodial parent has low self-esteem or issues with depression or anxiety.
How Does Reunification Therapy Work?
Reunification therapy involves one parent and the child (or children) working with a therapist to address issues that have created a rift between them. The treatment process aims to help the child understand parental behavior and offer the adult an opportunity to learn how to improve interactions with the child.
The therapy sessions usually occur in an office setting and may involve individual or joint sessions. It typically involves six or seven sessions. Each session is approximately one hour long, and the therapist will usually assign homework for the parents and children.
Parents who want to participate in this type of therapy must be able to attend all scheduled sessions since missing appointments can severely impact the program’s effectiveness. Moreover, it can be effective if both parties are committed to making positive changes in their relationship. The therapist is responsible for helping both parties communicate effectively to learn how their behavior affects each other.
The first therapy phase should focus on restoring, nurturing, and repairing the parent-child bond. It is crucial to remember that children who have endured trauma or abuse often exhibit behaviors similar to those of children with autism, ADHD, or depression. Coinciding with this re-connection phase, parents must learn about the feelings and emotions their child has experienced due to the trauma.
During the second phase of therapy, parents can begin to develop new skills specific to their parenting style and needs. For example, some families require more guidance while learning to set boundaries and expectations, while others may need help creating a more structured environment. In this phase, you will likely begin to hear your child’s side of the story as they share their experiences in foster care or an institution.
The final stage of therapy focuses on helping parents achieve independence in their parenting skills by providing them with tools and resources to continue on a path toward success outside of therapy. During this stage, it is also essential for children to understand where they fit within the family structure and learn how to adapt well to one another moving forward.
The goals of reunification therapy are to:
- Help the child feel safe and secure with their new family
- Encourage the child to share their thoughts and feelings
- Develop trust between parent and child
- Set limits on behavior that may be confusing or dangerous
- Help parents understand how past experiences are affecting their child’s behavior
Difference Between Reunification Therapy and Other Therapies
If you consider reunification therapy, consider several essential things before getting started. Reunification therapy is different than traditional family counseling or therapy. Some key differences include:
- The focus of reunification therapy is on the relationship between the parents and the children.
- Reunification therapy focuses on helping families find ways to reconnect and rebuild their relationships with one another.
- It works to help families understand how they can improve their relationship with one another by developing better communication skills, resolving conflict, and learning how to deal with difficult situations in constructive rather than destructive ways.
- It helps parents learn how to support each other while working through issues that may be causing problems in the family.
- Reunification therapy helps parents learn new ways of interacting with each other to establish new behavior patterns within the family unit.
What Can Reunification Therapy Help With?
Reunification therapy can help with several things, such as:
- Rebuilding trust and communication.
Therapy will focus on rebuilding trust between you and the parent you live away from. To restore trust, you may need to talk about the problems that caused you to leave.
- Rebuilding your relationship.
It is usual for reunification therapy to include fun activities for you and your parents to participate in, such as going out to eat or going on a trip. This can be a time for both of you to get to know each other again. Activities like this can also help build a stronger bond between you and your parents, making it easier for you to move forward together in the future.
- Learning how to disagree with each other in healthy ways.
You may occasionally have trouble getting along with each other, just like any family member. Reunification therapy can teach you how to express your feelings without acting aggressively toward each other. This will help both of you feel safe when dealing with uncomfortable issues in the future.
It helps children who have been neglected or abused by a parent overcome their initial reluctance to see the parent again. Some kids don’t want to see their parents because they fear something terrible will happen again. If this is the case, reunification therapy helps them overcome that fear and start seeing their parent again.
It helps other kids see the parent in a different light. For example, suppose a child has only seen the parent for short periods in a supervised setting after abuse or neglect. In that case, reunification therapy can help the child see that the parent can be fun and loving when they’re not under supervision. The child then starts looking forward to spending more time with that parent instead of dreading it.
Reunification therapy also helps parents become better at working with children. This can include developing good parenting skills and improving communication skills to work well with their child even when they disagree about something.
Benefits of Reunification Therapy
Reunification therapy is essential to healing the relationship between children and their parents healthily and positively. There are several critical benefits to reunification therapy:
- Reunifying parents and children through therapy can help reduce the pain and trauma experienced by all parties involved in separations caused by abuse, neglect, or other factors.
- Reunification therapy provides a safe space for parents and children to voice their feelings and concerns regarding the separation. It can help them healthily process those emotions while still maintaining their dignity.
- Parents who have had their children removed from the household can learn new parenting skills and ways to cope with underlying problems that may have caused the issues that led to removal. This can help them maintain custody of their children when they return home.
- Children who have been removed from their homes can learn how to express their feelings without fear of reprisal or punishment from parents or caregivers. This can help them find healthy ways of expressing themselves in the future.
- Reunification therapy allows parents to share their concerns about their child with a therapist specializing in this area. They can discuss their child’s behavior, thoughts, feelings, and the reasons for these behaviors.
- Parents are allowed to express their feelings about their child’s behavior and learn how to handle difficult situations with their children. This will enable them to understand better what they can do to help their child improve their behavior.
- It also helps parents understand their emotions and feelings concerning their child’s behavior. These feelings can help them become more aware of what they are experiencing and how it affects them emotionally.
- Parents also can get support from other parents who have had similar experiences with their children’s behavior problems and learn from them to improve their parenting skills.
When Should You Seek Reunification Therapy?
Reunification therapy can help any child that has experienced parental alienation, whether the goal is to go back to living with the alienated parent or to repair their relationship.
If a parent believes they are involved in parental alienation, they should seek reunification therapy. This will give them a chance to repair their relationship with their child and help avoid further estrangement in the future.
In some cases, reunification therapy may be too late, especially if the child is older or has severe issues with the estranged parent. However, even these children may benefit from reunification therapy to repair some of the damage caused by parental alienation.
How to Get Started With Reunification Therapy?
Reunification therapy can be an extremely challenging and emotional experience, especially when there is a lot of tension between parents and children. If you are considering reunification therapy, here are some helpful tips to help you get started:
- Don’t Rush Yourself
Take time to think about your options before getting started with reunification therapy. It’s essential to consider your child’s feelings and needs throughout the process. Speak to your child about what they want to determine whether or not this type of counseling is right for them.
- Find a Therapist You Trust
The most important thing about reunification therapy is finding a therapist you trust. Since this will be a very personal experience for both you and your child, it’s essential to be completely honest and open with the therapist from day one so that they can better understand your situation. They should also be available if either party needs them.
Additionally, a few things are worth keeping in mind when you’re considering reunification therapy:
- Not all therapists are trained to address parental alienation.
- The court may not be receptive to your plan for reunification therapy.
- Reunification therapy can be expensive and usually not covered by insurance.
- You may need an expert witness to explain the concept of parental alienation syndrome to the court.
Before choosing a therapist, ensure they have received training in counseling families whose children are being alienated from one parent. They must also have experience successfully helping parents and children come together after a separation or divorce. Here are a few questions to ask yourself while looking for a therapist:
- How long has your therapist been working in the area of family reunification?
- Does the therapist have a background in child development and attachment theory?
- Does the therapist have experience working with children who have experienced trauma?
- How many of these cases have they worked on in the past?
- What does the treatment plan look like? What are your goals for this therapy?
- Does the therapist have a good handle on what you are looking for in reunification counseling?
Things to Consider Before Getting Started With Reunification Therapy
There are a few things to consider before getting started with reunification therapy, such as:
1) Does your child want to attend reunification therapy?
2) Is your child physically or psychologically safe with the other parent? If not, reunification therapy will not help and can be harmful.
3) If your child wants to attend, would they be more likely to do so if you take them? It depends on the child’s age and maturity level. Even if they want to go, they may not want to go alone.
4) Would your child feel pressured by either parent if they attended alone? If so, it is probably best for both parents to be involved in the transportation of the children.
5) Are there other ways for your child to spend time with the other parent that would be easier? If so, this may be a better option for everyone involved.
When it comes to fractured relationships, sometimes the best course of action is to let time do its thing. Reunification therapy takes that concept further by adding a level of intentionality behind the act of separation.
By putting forth the energy and resources needed to separate and rejoin, you are more likely to arrive at a place where you are happier and more satisfied. Are there still bumps along the road? Sure. But they’ll be more minor bumps, and you’ll be better prepared to manage them.
- Baker, A. J., Murray, C., & Adkins, K. (2020). Parameters of reunification therapy and predictors of treatment success in high conflict divorce cases: A survey of Mental Health Professionals. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 61(8), 593–614. https://doi.org/10.1080/10502556.2020.1824206
- Warshak, R. A. (2018). Reclaiming parent–child relationships: Outcomes of family bridges with alienated children. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 60(8), 645–667. https://doi.org/10.1080/10502556.2018.1529505