What Is Reunification Therapy?

Therapist asking questions to a parent and child and taking notes

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What Is Reunification Therapy?

Reunification therapy refers to family therapy that aims to reunite or reestablish a relationship, usually between a parent and child. It emphasizes attachment, promotes healthy communication, and works to heal injuries in the relationship. It can aim to improve relationships within the family or treat alienation.

The primary goal of this type of therapy is to reestablish trust between the parent and child, so allowing therapy to progress at the child’s pace is essential. Reunification work can be long-term, though short-term intensive programs are also available.

The primary goal of this type of therapy is to reestablish trust between the parent and child, so allowing therapy to progress at the child’s pace is essential.

Types of Reunification Therapy

In most cases, reunification therapy happens after a high-conflict divorce. A judge often orders this therapy to repair the bond between parent and child following intense disagreements and disputes during the parents’ separation and legal battle. When reunification is court-ordered following divorce, it often includes co-parenting work in addition to parent-child sessions.

Less commonly, reunification therapy might be recommended when a child has been removed from the home, when a child has been in foster care due to neglect, or if a child perpetrated abuse against another child in the home. In these cases, reunification aims to establish a safe living environment for all family members.

Techniques

Because reunification therapy is a type of family therapy, a therapist doing reunification work might use techniques seen in other kinds of family therapy sessions. However, there are specific emphases that are unique to reunification therapy.

Co-Parenting Work

When reunification therapy is needed after a high-conflict divorce, co-parenting work is an essential part of the process. Co-parenting refers to working together to raise a child or children regardless of the parents’ relationship to each other, including stepparents.

Something I say to divorced parents all the time is, “If you got along great, you would still be married to each other.” The conflict that led to the divorce will usually interfere with the parents’ ability to come together for their children. Furthermore, if the need for reunification work stems from a parent alienating the child from the other parent, there are typically feelings of hurt and anger to work through.

Co-parenting work is essentially couple’s counseling and parenting for parents who are no longer together.

Something I say to divorced parents all the time is, “If you got along great, you would still be married to each other.” The conflict that led to the divorce will usually interfere with the parents’ ability to come together for their children.

Attachment Work

Because reunification is often recommended (or mandated) due to a rupture in a parent-child relationship, interventions often focus on fostering strong attachment. This can range from facilitating a conversation about a past argument to simply playing a game together and having a positive interaction.

Communication Skills/Conflict Resolution

Improving communication skills not only allows family members to work through specific conflicts in their relationships, but it gives them the ability to address future problems when they arise. All family members learn to express themselves in appropriate and productive ways, even through difficult topics.

What Reunification Therapy Can Help With

  • Establishing co-parenting boundaries: What does co-parenting mean after a divorce or separation? When picturing your future family, you may not have anticipated raising children outside of your relationship. Reunification can help you get on the same page with the other parent and establish boundaries and routines in your children’s best interests.
  • Estrangement: Reunification can also address estrangement. Estrangement refers to a distance between family members, and this can occur when a child feels resentment or anger toward a parent during the divorce. Reunification works to address the child’s feelings and heal the relationship between parent and child.
  • Alienation: On the other hand, alienation refers to when a child allies with one parent over another due to a false belief that the alienated parent is harmful or dangerous in some way. (If a child pulls away from an abusive parent, this is not alienation.) When a child has been alienated from a parent, reunification works to help the child develop a more realistic view of the parent’s character and behaviors, allowing a healthy relationship to manifest.
  • Safety planning: Finally, reunification can also help with safety planning. If a child was removed from the home due to unsafe behavior from either the parent or child, an important goal of reunification therapy is to establish and implement appropriate safety precautions to prevent future problems.

When a child has been alienated from a parent, reunification works to help the child develop a more realistic view of the parent’s character and behaviors, allowing a healthy relationship to manifest.

Benefits of Reunification Therapy

Reunification therapy can be an essential component of repairing relationships within a family that has experienced disruption or alienation. It can foster healthy attachment between parents and children and help parents get on the same page for the sake of the children following a high-conflict divorce.

Effectiveness

The effectiveness of reunification therapy varies. With any therapy, client engagement is essential for progress, and those who are court-ordered to attend therapy might be less inclined to engage. In cases of parental alienation, the parent might prevent the child from reuniting with the alienated parent.

However, reunification therapists have access to interventions and treatment models that have shown to be effective. Joint sessions between parents, therapist willingness to address and remove barriers to treatment, and flexibility with the treatment model have shown to predict success in reunification therapy.

Things to Consider

Although reunification therapy is often recommended for cases of alienation, it is not the only approach for a family to heal. Divorce is stressful and upsetting, and therapy focused on repairing relationships within the family can be beneficial.

If a parent suspects alienation, they can seek out reunification therapy independently or request that the judge order it. This could limit confidentiality, as court-ordered treatment often requires that information about treatment, including session content, be shared with the judge.

How to Get Started

Hurt feelings and anger are expected and common between a divorced couple. Reunification therapy can provide the space for the couple to work through these issues even if they know they will not get back together. It can pave the way for a healthy co-parenting relationship in the future.

  • Court-ordered reunification: If a judge has ordered you to engage in reunification therapy or if your lawyer has advised you to look into reunification, they should have information about providers who offer this service in your area. You can also search therapists in your area for someone who specializes in reunification.
  • Your feelings about reunification: People who come to reunification therapy are often apprehensive about the process and uncertain about what will happen in their sessions. Know that it is okay to have these feelings and bring any questions you have to the therapist. They should address your concerns related to the therapy.
  • Working with the therapist: Some parents are often concerned that the therapist will be “manipulated” by the other parent or that their child will be “forced” to participate in therapy or do things out of their comfort zone. Again, these feelings are okay and appropriate to bring up with your reunification therapist. A therapist providing this service should be trained to address these issues and take things at a comfortable pace for everyone in the family.

Reunification therapy is intense, difficult, and emotional work. Be prepared for this as you work to strengthen your relationship with your children.

People referred for reunification therapy are often apprehensive about the process and uncertain about what will happen in their sessions. Know that it is okay to have these feelings and to ask your therapist any questions.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Warshak RA. Reclaiming parent–child relationships: outcomes of family bridges with alienated childrenJournal of Divorce & Remarriage. 2019;60(8):645-667.

  2. Sullivan MJ. Reunification family therapy: A treatment manual, by Jan Faust, Hogrefe Publishing (2017): Book review: Reunification family therapy. Fam Court Rev. 2019;57(1):118-120.

  3. Baker AJL, Murray C, Adkins K. Parameters of reunification therapy and predictors of treatment success in high conflict divorce cases: a survey of mental health professionalsJournal of Divorce & Remarriage. 2020;61(8):593-614.