Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Reunification therapy in the context of divorce and separation is sometimes ordered when a parent has been out of a child’s life for a time or when a family is experiencing parent-child contact problems.
Reunification therapy is difficult work, not just for parents and children, but for the therapist as well. One reason for this is that reunification therapy is often ordered without a thorough analysis of the multiple reasons for parent-child contact problems.
Pre-emptive determinations of the number of joint sessions a child will partake in and clinical service agreements that state a predetermined number of joint sessions will occur, puts the cart before the horse. The risk is not only an increase in the likelihood of therapeutic failure but increased conflict for the family and potentially serious psychological consequences for the child.
Parent-child contact problems can arise for a myriad of reasons. Family violence issues are not always easy to see yet are a factor in majority, but not all, high conflict separations (Jaffe, Austin, & Poisson 1995, Johnson, 1994). Most family violence is not physical, although it can be. Behaviours that evoke fear such as intimidation or bullying, put downs, insults or name calling, yelling, criticizing, destroying property, swearing, emotional manipulation and gaslighting regardless of whether directly toward the child or toward the other parent are part of family violence but all too often written off as elements of “high conflict” or as one-off behaviours that are unlikely to occur again.
Comprehensive screening for family violence is prudent
in all family law matters,
but in particular prior
to reunification therapy.
A great deal of research has shown that the practice of practitioners relying on their subjective views or instincts to determine whether domestic violence has occurred is widespread. Situations get even more blurry one party attributes the parent-child contact issues to family violence and the other to parental alienation.
A pre-reunification assessment that describes the family’s parent child contact problems and includes a family violence assessment not only prioritizes children’s safety but provides a roadmap to help guide reunification including what steps might need to be taken prior to the process. If domestic violence treatment is indicated, it can be obtained. If trauma therapy for the children is indicated, it can be obtained.
Reunification therapy is not domestic violence treatment nor is it trauma treatment, although ideally it is trauma informed. Should an assessment not be feasible, at the very least a comprehensive screening for domestic violence, ideally by a clinician with a solid background in domestic violence, prioritizes children’s safety and keeps the cart exactly where it should be.
Written by Glenda Lux
M.A. R. Psych.