Kids in the Middle

Reunification Therapy for Child Estrangement and Alienation

It is estimated that 10 to 20% of separating parents are classified as “High Conflict” meaning that they engage in unhealthy and destructive communication practices that have a negative impact on the children. Parents will use a variety of negative communication methods such as disrespectful and abusive phone calls, e-mails, and text messages or alternatively will refuse to communicate or share information necessary to the child’s well being. Visitation exchanges can be problematic as the children are exposed to the negative interactions of their parents. Sometimes one or both parents will negatively influence the child against the other parent by making negative comments, restricting or denying access for frivolous reasons or communicating to the child that it is not acceptable for them to have a relationship with the other parent. However, in some cases, children resist visitation for reasons other than alienating behavior by one parent. For example, a child may have had a distant relationship with one of the parents prior to separation and the child finds it difficult to feel comfortable in the presence of the distant parent during visitation. Regardless of the cause, the child experiences painful loyalty conflicts, where the child feels like they have to choose which parent they will have a relationship with.

In Child Estrangement cases, the child resists having contact with the estranged parent, and often will complain both before and after the visits. In Child Alienation cases, the child will refuse to have any contact with the alienated parent and will give irrational reasons and justifications for not seeing the alienated parent. Research suggests that children who become estranged and /or alienated are at higher risk of developing psychological and relationship issues as adults.

It is important that a professional trained in Reunification Therapy be retained as early as possible once the child begins to display symptoms of estrangement and alienation. Clinical experience demonstrates that as time passes without intervention, the more difficult it is to reverse the estrangement and alienation process. It may be necessary for the Court to order the child and parents to attend therapy in the event that the level of parental conflict is so high that they are unable to cooperate in attending to the child's symptoms. If a Parenting Coordinator has been appointed, the PC may direct the parents to seek therapy.