After a three year absence from her 8-year-old daughter, Allison was eager to reenter and re-engage in her life. She had lost all custody rights due to a neglect charge that happened five years ago. Alison had gone inside a house to purchase illegal drugs and left her child unattended in a hot car. Her child was red hot and screaming when a bystander noticed and called the police. But she paid her dues, went to rehab, did all of the required therapy, and now was excited to finally see her daughter again.
The problem is that her daughter was not so excited to see her mother again. In fact, she was very fearful as was her father. When he became aware of the neglect at the hands of his wife, he filed for divorce, pressed charges against her, and won full custody of their daughter. He thought the issue was closed, but now the mother was petitioning the court for visitation.
Desperate to find a solution that would be agreeable with the court, protect his daughter, and ensure that his former wife really had healed, the father reached out to a therapist. She recommended reconciliation therapy, a process by which trust is rebuilt with the estranged parent in a therapeutic setting. This is a necessary stepping stone to reunification which may or may not happen depending on participation and success of the reconciliation. Here is what the process looks like.
Lay the groundwork.
- Before this process can begin, all parties need to agree to try it and work towards a common goal. The best goal is to do what is in the best interest of the child, not either parent. Having a relationship, however distant it might be, with both parents is ideal. When a child is completely estranged from one parent, they tend to develop idealistic fantasies that parent will one day rescue them. This false hope becomes devastating when reality sets in and the child sees the parent in a more accurate light.
- The second primary goal is parental collaboration instead of confrontation. When parents unite by putting their differences aside so they can effectively work together on parenting, the child thrives. Children who have parents continually fighting, manipulating, and undermining each other generate unnecessary mental health problems in their children such as oppositional behavior, anxiety, and depression.
- Of course, since this is all about the child, the child needs to be in agreement to begin the process. This might take some encouraging, empathetic listening, and motivational interviewing skills before things can proceed. It is not ok to start this without the child’s permission. There are few things a child can control, but their therapeutic process should be one of them.
- During this period, there are no joint therapy sessions. Ideally, each party has their own private session to discuss their concerns, objections, hopes, goals, past failures, and successes. This can take one or several individual sessions per person depending on the following issues:
- The amount of past trauma. If there has been significant unhealed trauma, this should be resolved before beginning the reconciliation process. Unresolved trauma could sabotage and/or delay the process even further.
- The strong attachment. Due to feelings of abandonment by one parent, some children develop a significant bond with the parent who remained. This can result in a loyalty bond in which the child feels like they will be betraying the parent who cared for them if they engage in a relationship with the other parent. This must be addressed and sometimes worked out in therapy between said the child and parent before introducing the estranged parent.
- Any diagnosis. Everyone involved should be evaluated for any particular mental health concerns. For instance, a person with depression should be assessed regularly during the reconciliation process to ensure that it does not worsen.
Start the individual process.
- Ideally, the process begins after having laid the groundwork with several more individual sessions. During this time the parent and child are discussing with the therapist what the first and subsequent joint sessions will entail. Several items need to be addressed:
- The rules and boundaries of the session. There should be a list of what will and won’t be done in the session. For instance, the child might not be OK with any physical touch and therefore the parent would not be allowed to hug the child. Or, the child might have safety concerns with the parent so exit plans might need to be established. Most of the rules and boundaries are for the child, not the parent, thereby helping the child to feel as if they have more control over the process.
- How to start communication. A common error estranged parents make is overloading a child with questions in an effort to learn more about them. Many children view this as interrogating and do not respond well. Instead, the parent needs some instruction as to how best to communicate with their child so the child feels safe at all times.
- No promises. A second common error is for the parent to offer the child some desired item if they agree to meet with the parent outside of therapy. This is a big NO as this is bribery and manipulative behavior. It is usually done to undermine the other parent and give the child a false sense of security.
- Court-ordered items. When this is a court-ordered therapeutic process, it is essential that the therapy is catered to whatever was ordered. This might dictate the number of sessions, the involvement of each party, and/or reporting back to a court official as to the progress. Any report should be openly communicated with all parties so as to be fully transparent on the success or failure of the process.
- Expectations of therapy. At the end of this process and during the initial joint session, each party will have expectations about what is to be accomplished. While it might not actually happen as anticipated, they do need to be discussed. Unrealistic expectations of instant bonding and excitement should be tempered to a more realistic outcome.
- It usually takes three individual sessions of the child and estranged parent before the joint sessions can begin. This allows time for anxieties to be tempered, depression to be monitored, and any additional unknown traumas to surface. The idea is that the first session together should go as anticipated by all parties as if it was scripted and then performed. There should be no surprises about the conversation, where everyone is going to sit, how long it will last, and how to end things if they don’t go well.
Start the joint sessions.
- The first joint session is usually so well planned that happens seamlessly, whereas the next sessions tend to be more therapeutic. The first session is like a meet and greet with little to no substance other than to introduce, demonstrate a willingness to head to boundaries, and maintain a safe environment. It is a foundational session where the groundwork of trust can be laid without fear of negative consequences.
- The next sessions are more directive. During this time, the child is allowed to confront the estranged parent, if they want, about the things they are angry about. This is not ever a reciprocal session, as it is the parent who needs to reestablish their relationship with the child due to their poor behavior and not the other way around. It is recommended that the child have an “angry list” upon which they can read to the parent. The parent is to hear the child, acknowledge their wrongdoing, and ask for forgiveness. It is a grueling session but is very therapeutic. This can take one or more sessions depending on the nature of the list.
- After all of the anger, fear, and guilt has been addressed, the last joint session is all about how to proceed going forward. Ideally, the child and formerly estranged parent would come to a new set of boundaries and expectations that satisfy both of them and the court. Hopefully, this is mutually agreed upon with the other parent and signed off by the therapist and the court.
- Once the process is complete, it is beneficial for all parties to do a therapeutic check-in periodically to ensure that everyone is still doing well. By neglecting this last step, old unproductive habits and behaviors tend to arise which can harm the relationship going forward. A willingness to continue to work towards reunification takes time and should not be rushed.
At first, Alison was frustrated by the reconciliation process because it delayed her interaction with her child. But eventually, she saw the benefit of it and diligently worked through the process at her daughter’s pace. This laid a foundation of trust that helped to rebuild their relationship.