Want to improve outcomes in parent-child reunification therapy? screen for traumatic stress.
Updated: Nov 8, 2022
Reunification Therapy is designed to heal strained parent-child relationships. There are many reasons why strained parent-child relationships occur, and divorce and separation are but one. Additional and genuine causes of a strained parent-child relationship include family violence, abuse/neglect, parenting problems, parent mental health issues and parental substance abuse, all of which can pre-date the separation. Lack of functional co-parenting/high conflict, pathological attachment to an abusive parent, and words or actions by one parent to interfere with the other parent's relationship with the child are additional causes.
Whether reunification therapy is sought voluntarily or ordered by the court, the success rate is not as high as one might hope. Failed reunification efforts risk considerable fallout not just for the estranged parent but the non-estranged parent.
Reunification efforts can fail for a variety of reasons. One reason is the lack of screening for domestic violence before engaging in the process. See: Parent-Child Reunification Therapy. Sometimes The Cart Is Before The Horse.
Another reason is the lack of screening for traumatic stress in children before engaging in the process.
"Child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or traumatic situations that overwhelm their ability to cope" (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network). The National Child Traumatic Stress Network | (nctsn.org)
Trauma does not require experiencing an overwhelming or life and death situation, and having an overwhelming or life-threatening experience is not always experienced as traumatic.
Everyone experiences life events uniquely, including children. Childhood trauma can arise from situations that may be common and not identified as traumatic. For example, a relocation, the loss of a pet, compromised parenting and any and all of the contributors to strained parent-child relationships can be experienced as traumatic.
Traumatic stress changes a person's natural response to stress and rewires the brain to seek protection even when objectively it may not be warranted. Unfortunately, this search for safety can hinder reunification efforts, including the willingness to partake in the process, perceptions of what was said, perceptions of what others are saying and doing, memories, feelings of panic and anxiety, distortion in the reporting of experiences, the list is endless.
Screening for traumatic stress should occur as a standard practice at the onset of the reunification process. If trauma screening indicates that the child is experiencing traumatic stress or has been exposed to specific traumas such as child abuse, neglect, or exposure to serious intimate partner violence, these need to become considerations in reunification therapy. Evidence-based trauma treatment or treatment for domestic violence may need to occur either before or in conjunction with reunification therapy.
Parents, family law professionals and Courts should not overlook traumatic stress in failed reunification efforts. Reunification processes that do not deliberately screened for trauma set children up for considerable and undue distress. However, unscreened reunification processes risks more than that. When a child experiencing traumatic stress begins to show increased distress and resistance to reunification and/or when the parent with the non-strained relationship expresses concern that the reunification therapy is not going well, they risk being blamed as resistant to the process and negatively influencing the child.
Blame leads to simplistic and often incorrect conclusions. It invites arguments for more aggressive and structural legal "remedies" such as increased parenting time for the parent experiencing a strained relationship with their child or reduced parenting time for the parent viewed as negatively influencing.
There is no standard protocol for reunification therapy and it is a mistake to assume pre-screening for trauma and domestic violence is occurring. Reunification therapy, even with experienced clinicians, is essentially buyer beware. It is important to ask any proposed reunification therapist if they conduct both trauma and domestic violence screening before beginning. Ask how the reunification therapist will use the information from the screening in the therapeutic process.
Moving full speed ahead with reunification therapy before a comprehensive screening for domestic violence and trauma sets an already difficult process up for additional problems it likely can't bear.
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