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There is consensus among experienced practitioners, supported in the social science literature, that a family therapy approach is preferred for mild and moderate cases of strained parent-child relationships. This includes parent-child contact problems after separation or divorce when:
Generally speaking, family therapy is intended to improve the current difficulties within the family, including those related to the parent-child relationships and contact, parenting and co-parenting. Detailed parenting plans, court orders, regular court monitoring, and accountability/sanctions for noncompliance are important structural components needed for successful family therapy in parent-child contact problem cases.
Reunification Therapy (Reintegration Therapy/ Reconciliation Therapy)
Parent-child contact problems, like other relationship problems, are systemic in nature. Consequently, it is not sufficient to limit intervention to only one part of the system, such as individually with either the rejected parent or child, or even with the child and rejected parent in joint sessions. The preferred parent’s participation and coparenting work is essential to the success of the therapy. Siblings may be contributing to the parent-child relationship problem, especially when they are also resisting contact. Therefore, optimally:
Process, Intake and Screening
The family therapy model is multi-faceted in that it requires the participation of all family members in various combinations (e.g., individual sessions with the child and each parent, parent-child sessions, coparenting sessions, and whole family sessions).
Unfortunately, even when court-ordered, some referrals are not suitable for Reunification Therapy. Careful screening and intake with the lawyers and the parents at the outset are important to determine suitability. After the completion of a brief Parent Referral Form (PRF) by both parents and a preliminary screening call with the lawyers, a more thorough Clinical Intake Consultation (CIC) is conducted. This involves the clinician meetings with the parents and children to further help determine suitability. More severe parent-child contact problem cases regardless of the cause of the problem are unlikely to respond to the family therapy being summarized here and may require other clinical or legal remedies.
The therapist is not as a s.30 parenting plan assessor, arbitrator, mediator, or parenting coordinator. This means the purpose of the family therapy is not to determine IF it is in the child’s best interests to have contact with a resisted or rejected parent. Rather, in consenting to the family therapy both parents must agree, or the court must order, that it is in the child’s best interests to have contact with the resisted or rejected parent irrespective of the reason for the parent-child contact problem, be it justified, unjustified or a combination of both.
Reunification Therapy for parent-child contact problems utilizes interventions consistent with cognitive behavioural and solution-focused therapies. Parent education is a large component of the work. The reciprocal relationship between feelings, thinking, and behaviour are fundamental; changing one often changes the other. In some cases, the parents will have obtained a court order for Reunification Therapy or they may have consented to a court order. Nevertheless, once accepted for family therapy, like in any therapy, the parents will be required to provide their informed consent contained in a detailed Family Therapy Agreement. Moreover, parent consent is a fundamental part of the acceptance criteria for Reunification Therapy because the therapy requires both parents’ participation.
Importance of Parenting Time Plan It is imperative for the parents, children, and any other professionals currently involved with the family to understand what the family therapist can and cannot not do in their role as therapist.
As noted, the role does not include determining whether or not it is in the child’s best interest to restore contact with the rejected parent. Nor does the role include making decisions about the parenting time schedule. However, the role does include assisting the family members to implement the parenting time schedule ordered by the court or agreed to by the parents.
To more readily accomplish this, and because the therapist is not a mediator, parenting coordinator, assessor, or arbitrator, it is preferable for the parents to enter the therapy with an agreed to, detailed and unambiguous parenting plan or court order that includes the regular and holiday/special day parenting time schedule.
If a parenting time plan is not established, in some exceptional cases, the parents will be unable to agree on an interim parenting time schedule and there will be no court order for one. In these cases, it may be possible, at the outset, to establish a parenting time schedule phased in over time commensurate with the passage of therapy (for example, the parenting time schedule might indicate, after four (4) weeks of therapy, the parenting time will be ________ and after eight (8) weeks of therapy it will be _______).
In other cases, the parenting time may be limited to the contact during family therapy as deemed appropriate by the therapist for the purpose of the therapy. This latter option, is problematic and, therefore, not preferred as it puts the therapist in a decision-making role about the child’s contact with a parent and consequently, may compromise his or her role as therapist. The therapist, however, should be able to decide on smaller issues such as the context of contacts, protocols for transfers, telephone and email, parent-child contact, co-parenting communication and child-related information sharing).
Additional goals for the family therapy include:
Reunification Therapy may differ from other more traditional individual and family therapies in some of the following ways:
Experienced clinical and legal professionals agree, the longer a parent-child contact problem exists, the worse it can become and the harder it may be to remedy. Initial delays are common as parents and their lawyers struggle to agree to the terms in the Family Therapy Agreement. Even once the therapy gets started, delays related to scheduling and other reasons can occur. In some instances, these delays may indicate that the family relationship difficulties are too severe for the family therapy approach.
As the therapy progresses, children and parents may find the work challenging. The parents may struggle with implementing the parenting time schedule previously agreed-to or court ordered. However, while noting it can be stressful, it is usually best to attempt to problem solve any issues that may arise (instead of avoiding these). Parent and legal conflicts, delays, or significant gaps between sessions are likely to increase the associated stress and anxiety and exacerbate the strained parent-child relationships.
Often, our attempted solutions can become, or exacerbate, the problem. It is not helpful to continue with an approach that is proving to be ineffective, and which may well be exacerbating the problems. It is for this reason that careful monitoring of any progress is important. A status conference in court or with the lawyers is one way to monitor progress. If the identified therapy goals are not being met to some extent within 60 to 90 days of the therapy beginning, careful consideration needs to be given to additional court support or legal remedies, to prevent the contact problem from becoming worse with the passage of time.
While parents may have different views about the causes or reasons for their child’s reluctance or refusal to have contact with a parent, both parents must be committed to being part of the solution. The family therapy requires not only a commitment of effort, but also of time expended both in the weekly sessions and in between sessions reviewing educational material and completing homework. Often, more than one session per week of the various family members will be necessary, particularly in the first 6 to 12 weeks.
Reunification Therapy does not provide a quick fix. Please keep in mind that steps forward coupled with a step or two backwards often characterizes good and sustainable change. This should be expected as a normal part of the process and provides an opportunity to learn from and correct mistakes.
*Based on the Group Benefits Plan, fees for service may be covered under Social Work
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