Many of us have been placed in the difficult position of trying to reunify a parent with a resistant or refusal child following a difficult divorce. Most professionals have found this to be an extremely challenging task. Often a court order will mandate a certain number of sessions with the rejected parent and the child, and frequently the child doesn’t want to reunify with the parent. While there are multiple reasons for children’s resistance, it is often the result of some alienating behavior on the part of the aligned or favored parent. An estimated that 1% of children and teens in North America have experienced parental alienation (Bernet, et al, 2010), and the percentage appears to be on the increase. Fidler and Bala (2010) estimated that eleven to fifteen percent of divorce cases now involve parental alienation. Whereas the favored parent may say and superficially appear to do the right thing, stating she/he wants nothing more than for the child and rejected parent to have a positive relationship, frequently the favored parent doesn’t truly support the reunification process. Further the favored parent oftentimes doesn’t see the value of the child reunifying with the rejected parent.
Reunification therapy usually takes place after a child has refused or been resistant to see one of their parents following their divorce. While vital, it usually proves to be an exceptionally challenging intervention to implement. Unfortunately, if not successful—either implementation or outcome—many of these children never see the rejected parent again. As a parent myself, I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking than to lose contact with your child.
I have managed many reunification cases over the years. I have learned much, been frustrated frequently and had success in some cases. However, after many years, I have found several factors that increase the likelihood of a successful outcome, which I define as: (1) the parent and child developing some sort of relationship in which the child no longer fears being with the rejected parent, (2) the parent and child continue to develop a relationship in which they have regular contact, and (3) there is a decrease in refusal and resistant behavior on the part of the child.
In my successful reunification cases, I have used systematic desensitization, also known as graduated exposure therapy, a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy, frequently and effectively used in overcoming phobias and other anxiety disorders. Additionally, I have found the following to be critical and necessary for achieving some foundation toward a future parent-child relationship:
1. Strong Court Orders. If the favored parent doesn’t feel some legal pressure from the court, they often remain non-compliant or superficially compliant with orders. I recommend that therapists who assume these cases require that they report monthly to the court as to compliance and progress of both parents.
2. Teach Parents How to Understand the Problem of Refusal as a Problem of Anxiety. It is helpful to view the child’s avoidance as part of the same resistance that is seen in most anxiety reactions. We know that children who have had a trauma or injury often try to resist the stimulus that brought on trauma. For example, if a child were hurt on the playground by another child, the hurt child might resist or refuse to go to the playground where the event happened. Children who resist and refuse to see a parent often shake and worry in the presence of that parent. The child is seemingly disproportionately anxious about seeing this parent. Thus, if a child feels that the rejected parent has brought on their suffering, they will try to avoid that parent. The most important step is not to allow the child to use avoidance as a strategy. Even though we know that avoidance can give a child some immediate relief, and is very powerful, it generally makes the situation worse. Parents need to understand that avoiding the playground, similarly to avoiding the rejected parent will continue to allow the “worry brain” to win. Facing these fears and moving through them ultimately gives the child a sense of accomplishment and mastery.
3. The Aligned or Favored Parent Must Be Convinced That There Is Something in the Process That Will Actually Help the Child. This is often hard to accomplish. The favored parent often feels that there is nothing beneficial for the child in reunification. The favored parent may unconsciously support the child in not having a relationship with the rejected parent. Information and research findings should be shared with the favored parent as to possible negative outcomes of the child not having a relationship with the rejected parent. For example, alienated children may have higher levels of depression and poorer self-esteem. Amy Baker (2010) reports that half of the respondents in her study of adult children who had themselves experienced PAS were later alienated from their own children. I have had some success with reframing this situation and using the analogy of a child with a school phobia. The parent needs to realize that helping the child get back to school is the appropriate expectation rather than teaching the child that it’s acceptable to avoid going to school. Having the favored parent take an active role in helping the child through the anxiety engages the parent in the therapy process. Recruiting the parent in being your “co‐therapist” can help the child manage the anxiety rather than avoid it.
4. It Is Essential to Maintain Contact with Both the Favored
Parent and the Rejected Parent Throughout This Process. I regularly ask the child to leave the session about ten minutes early and “de-brief” with the rejected parent. I review the session including the parent’s responses to the statements of the child. It’s important to give the parent direct feedback as to “how they did.” I frequently recommend that the parent read Overcoming the Co-Parenting Trap: Essential Parenting Skills When a Child Resists a Parent by Moran, Sullivan and Sullivan (2015). It is also important to meet with the aligned parent to give that parent feedback as to how the process is proceeding.
The following case example reflects the use of this approach (all identifying information has been changed):
I recently saw twelve-year-old twin girls. These girls were heavily aligned with their mother. The parents are involved in a high conflict divorce, ongoing for over three years. Prior to their refusal and resistant behaviors, the girls were going regularly to the father’s apartment for sleepovers and weekday visits. However, during this last year, the girls started refusing to see him. The presenting issue centered around a time when the father was away for a business meeting and missed the children’s holiday play at school. This became the precipitating event. The daughters stated that it was clear to them that the father didn’t care for them or he would have cancelled his travel. Additionally, the girls recalled other times when their father was not present. The father stated that he never missed any other school events, but the girls claimed that he was lying. They stated that they were frightened of being alone with their father, as he might lose his temper with them. They felt in danger whenever they were with him. The girls also stated that the father never made them healthy lunches.
I began therapy by building rapport with the girls by seeing only them, without the father present. However, I made it clear that we were proceeding with the reunification and further told them that both their mother and father had agreed that we were going to proceed. There was a court order, which called for sessions with the father and his daughters. While they referred to their father by his first name, I always referred to him as “your father.”
I was able to get mother to tell the girls that she was going to comply with all court orders and that they should as well. However, I often felt that she was complying superficially and was not truly supportive of the reunification. I spent two sessions getting to know the girls and told them the rules for our future sessions. They were told that they had to participate and that they had to be respectful. They were free to express their feelings and worries, as long as it was done respectfully. Initially, both girls told me that they were not sleeping since they learned they would have to see their father again. Both girls said that they had never done better in school during the time frame in which they had not seen their father. They told me that they shake when their father enters the room, that he would act nicely only when I was there but that he would not continue this behavior once I had left.
As children are expected to start desensitization in a state of discomfort, I scheduled our first telephone conference, their first contact, with the father. I had the girls come to the session a few minutes early so that I could again review the “rules” with them. I told them that I didn’t expect them to be comfortable and that being comfortable was not our goal. I instructed the girls to tell their father about what they had been doing in school as well as informing him of any extra curricular activities in which they were involved. I told them that not answering his questions was rude and that I was certain that their mother did not want them to be rude. I tried not to address any substantive issues during these early sessions, but rather used the time for informing their father about their activities and life. Though the phone sessions proceeded well, both girls told me that they were not going to be able to do the Skype sessions, the next step in the gradual exposure sequence. I listened to their worries and assured them that they would be safe and that we were going to proceed. Consistent with previous experience, the Skype sessions went well. We then scheduled our first session with the girls and the father together, in my office.
Before our first in-person session with the girls and their father, I informed the father that there would not to be any physical contact such as hugging, kissing, or high fives with the girls. I planned the seating so that the girls were sitting on the sofa and the father was going to sit on a chair. While I planned to separate the girls for future events, I thought that being together for the initial session with their father would probably promote a constructive emotional equilibrium and security. Subsequently, I separated the girls.
Before the first reunification session with their father, I also had an appointment with the girl’s mother. I explained to her about anxiety and that I expected the girls to be anxious. I also told mother that her cooperation in this reunification was important in that it would teach the girls how to deal with anxiety. I told the mother that “feelings follow actions” and that we didn’t need to wait until the girls “felt” like being with their father, that they should first be with their father and then their feelings would change. I also reminded mother that there were court orders in effect, and that she needed to bring the girls to sessions and cooperate fully with the therapy. I managed to obtain mother’s reluctant cooperation. As previously stated, strong court orders are a prerequisite for this intervention to have a chance of success.
After approximately two or three months from the girls’ initial session, things have greatly improved. The girls now have regular office visits with their father and also regular visits with him outside of the therapist’s office. Additionally, there is significantly less fear and anxiety when the children see their father either in the therapist office or for a lunch meeting. Significantly, the parents are not threatening to go to court to litigate these issues but instead have arrived at a place of acceptance and commitment that this process will continue.
Reunification work is very difficult. However, it can also be rewarding. As one might expect, it is a slow and arduous process. There are few complete successes, but there is often improvement. I find that the therapist must continuously give feedback to both parents and push forward in re-establishing a relationship with the child and the rejected parent.
Exploring this process underscores the idea that understanding the child’s anxiety as similar to other childhood fears or phobias can yield salutary results. The therapist’s job is to help the child and the family through this fear.
Avoidant behavior is not constructive in overcoming fears. The aligned parents must come to realize that joining with their children to avoid the rejected parent doesn’t help children deal effectively with their fears.
Baker, A. (2010). “Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.
Bernet, W. e. al., “Parental alienation, DSM-V and ICD-11”; The American Journal of Family Therapy, 2010, 38, 2, 76 – 187.
Fidler, B. and Bala, N. (2010). “Children resisting post separation contact with a parent: concepts, controversies, and conundrums.” Family Court Review, 48 (1) 10‐47.
Moran, J., Sullivan, T and Sullivan, M. Overcoming the co-parenting trap: essential parenting skills when a child resists a parent Natick, MA: Overcoming Barriers Inc; 2015.
Alan Yellin, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist
11777 San Vicente Blvd. Suite 703 Los Angeles, CA 90049
email: Alan@dryellin.com Website: Dryellin.com