Reunification Counselling: Re-Establishing a Positive Relationship Between Parent and Child

This article seeks to inform readers about the psychological services related to reunification counselling. It is a focused article that will delineate the process of re-establishing a parent-child relationship after there has been a significant break in contact and/or parental alienation.

Adults marry or form intimate relationships with a partner with the intention to remain with that partner for the rest of their lives. But it’s a well established fact that it doesn’t always work out that way. While the divorce rates are not as high as many people think, estimates from Statistics Canada in 2008 suggested that 38 per cent of married couples in Canada will divorce by their 30th wedding anniversary. The percentages range from 22 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador to 48 per cent in Quebec. In the U.S., the figure is 44 per cent.

Generally, a marital split is fraught with grief, uncertainty and fear of loss even if one or both of the partners has initiated the split. Sometimes, one or both of the partners become angry to the extent of vindictiveness. It isn’t easy to abandon a dream of growing old with a much loved spouse. Partners may be bitterly disappointed in the partner, their behaviour and the state of marriage in general. In addition to grieving the loss of a dream of long-standing marriage, partners must sometime endure a significant change in their financial resources and life style. A partner is sure to suffer further if their partner has left the marriage for a new partner.

Thus, the dissolution of a marriage or intimate relationship can be a very difficult time for both partners. This is particularly true when the couple have children. Unfortunately, children are frequently used as bartering chips to pressure, hurt, punish or alienate the other partner for a variety of reasons. Past hurt, resentment, intense anger or unresolved conflicts between the couple can lead one of the partners to place barriers between their ex-spouse and their own children. Circumstances, either real or imagined, may allow one of the parents to succeed in limiting a past partner’s access to their children to the point of cutting off all contact between that parent and child. It is not unusual for the children to jump into the fray. Sometimes the children have been parentified and accorded an adult role that far exceeds their developmental or emotional stage. If they have witnessed intense parental discord and/or familial violence in the past they may simply want to avoid further arguments. At times, a child will agree with the custodial parent that it is in their best interest to avoid further contact with the estranged parent because they don’t want to emotionally or physically abandon the custodial parent. It is an unfortunate fact that children are often deliberately or inadvertently, manipulated by the custodial parent into believing that the other parent is “bad”, “not a good parent” and therefore undeserving of a primary parental role.

The fact that a spouse disapproves, dislikes or distrusts their ex-spouse is not cause to end or significantly limit a child’s relationship with the other parent. Unless a parent is truly a danger to their own children, parental alienation is reprehensible. With rare exceptions, a parent has the right to continue a parental role throughout their life and their child’s life. There are few avenues for the alienated spouse except to seek legal counsel and enter a long, expensive, contentious battle to re-establish a relationship with their own child/children. Reunification counselling is a valid and useful way to re-establish a relationship between estranged parent and their children.

Reunification Counselling

Choosing reunification counselling rather than supervised access or court ordered custody/access after an absence is a prudent means of reconnecting with your children. A meeting between parent and child, particularly after a long separation, is emotionally laden. It is often a frightening time for children who may fear alienating the custodial parent if they begin to accept and enjoy a relationship with the estranged parent. If the children have witnessed years of arguing and/or familial violence between their parents the estranged parent may become the scapegoat for all that was considered ‘bad’ in the family home. Without doubt, children have been bitterly disappointed by the breakdown of the family. The estranged parent may have attempted to re-establish a relationship with their children several times without success. The meetings may have been tense and emotional. There is always the possibility that the children will be questioned when they returned home and the estranged parent further disparaged by the custodial parent. It is obvious that such circumstances will undermine the work underway at my office and significantly hamper any reconciliation between the alienated parent and their children.

Reunification counselling will require a psychologist or psychological associate who is qualified to work competently with both children and adults. Given the fact that the children may be very young, it is important that the psychologist has completed significant education and training in developmental psychology and is licensed to work with a young population as well as adults. Unlike many counsellors, a trained psychologist has the necessary expertise to read and understand psychological assessments that may have been completed earlier.

My approach to Reunification Counselling

A prospective client may contact me directly for service or their lawyer may request my services on behalf of the estranged parent. My work will begin with a one-hour consultation with the alienated parent. If the terms of service are satisfactory to both parties and I am able to accept the case, I will draft a plan for the reunification counselling and submit it to the client and/or their counsel. An estimate of the fee for psychological services will be submitted at that time with the caveat that additional service will be more costly. (If the client has workplace insurance benefits that cover psychological services some or all of the fees may be recovered.) Simultaneously, the parent’s counsel will request that reunification counselling be considered an option by the separated or divorced parties.

What follows is a general outline of reunification counselling procedure:

1. Time will also be set aside for the counsellor to read any documents pertaining to the case and make notes that might inform the clinical work ahead. There may be phone consultations with lawyers or letters/emails to counsel. Similarly, there could be emails/phone consultation with the client throughout the reunification counselling.

2. The estranged parent can expect to attend 2-5 individual sessions before and after the reunification counselling begins. It should be clear that this individual work will be limited to reconciliation with their children and their parenting role. It should not be considered personal or individual therapy.

3. Individual psychotherapy or counselling may be recommended for the estranged parent while they complete reunification counselling. In order to best serve the client and their children, the individual counselling should be completed with another therapist, at another clinic.

4. Conversely, the counsellor would expect to establish and maintain an ongoing, individual therapeutic relationship with the children while they are completing reunification counselling.

5. If at all possible, the counsellor might like to meet with the custodial parent at least once in order to explain reunification counselling, their professional role and establish a pleasant working relationship. Such a meeting is not designed to discuss the relationship/marriage, the breakdown of the relationship or to determine who was to blame. Any meeting with the custodial parent focuses on the emotional support of the children while they are completing reunification counselling. It will be essential that he or she be willing to support the reunification counselling and consider recommendations concerning the ex-spouse and their children with an open mind. At minimum, it is essential that the custodial parent does not deliberately undermine or sabotage the reunification counselling.

6. Children of estranged or divorced parents have often been through a great deal of emotional turmoil in the past. A fundamental goal of reunification counselling is to ensure that children who are psychologically vulnerable are emotionally well supported. Thus, prior to the start of reunification counselling, individual counselling sessions will be set for each child. The approach to the work will be dependent upon the age/s and functioning of the children. For example, a child may present as very young, developmentally delayed, gifted, emotionally stable or unstable. Counselling with an older child or teen will take place in a consultation room where the child and I can talk. A young child may work in the Play Therapy room and use toys, games and play therapy materials in order to communicate feelings and experiences.

7. The focus of the early therapy with the children is to support them as they discuss the loss of family cohesion in an emotionally safe, confidential environment. It will be an opportunity for them to express doubt about reconciliation, any anger that may exist and actively grieve the loss of familial cohesion. It will also facilitate reintroduction to the estranged parent. If is essential that the custodial parent and any other person remain supportive and not question the child about their personal therapy. Every person, including a young child, has the right to confidentiality when it comes to psychological treatment.

8. Each child will attend 2-4 weekly therapy sessions prior to beginning reunification counselling with their parent. As stated earlier, the counsellor may wish to see the child/children individually or together between reunification counselling sessions in order to ensure their psychological well-being.

9. If there is more than one child in the family it is advisable for the parent to work with the counsellor and each child individually before moving forward. The time required for the actual reunification counselling will depend upon progress made, participant’s desire to move forward and the counsellor’s clinical judgement. Weekly sessions are optimal and may be as limited as 6-weeks or as long as 20-weeks.

10. As soon as deemed appropriate, the therapist will work with parent and all children during each session. Ultimately, the goal of reunification counselling is to use psychological intervention as a means of re-establishing an independent, positive relationship between a parent and their children.

11. Lawyer/s or court may request a discharge letter that outlines the therapeutic gains and recommendations following termination from reunification counselling.

It goes without saying that reunification counselling can be a costly, time-consuming means of reconnecting with your children. Having said this, a psychologist’s fees may not be as expensive as legal/court fees and a parent will receive sensitive, experienced professional help while reconnecting with their offspring. Likewise, the children will be well supported emotionally by a clinician with significant training and expertise in child development and psychological functioning throughout the process.

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