Reunification therapy seeks to reconnect a parent and child after a period of estrangement due to adverse events. Divorce or situations that result in child foster care placements are examples of factors that can lead to parent-child estrangement.

Life can be complicated and include problematic situations for families. Sometimes circumstances result in separation between a parent and their child.

Reconnecting can be challenging if the detachment lasts long enough or if there is a significant breach of trust involved.

A therapist may be able to help using an approach called reunification therapy.

Reunification therapy helps restore the connection between a parent and their child when difficult circumstances create both physical and psychological distance between them.

Divorce is one such circumstance. Reunification therapy can ensure that a child maintains their relationship with both parents, which research has shown to be beneficial.

When parental separation doesn’t occur in a peaceful and civil way, the heightened strife can worsen divorce-related trauma for the children involved.

2021 research suggests that children living through high-conflict parental divorce may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Several factors increase the impact of this conflict:

  • parental interactions that are aggressive or hostile
  • parental disputes over children
  • the involvement of children in parental conflicts (triangulation)

Interparental violence increases a child’s chance of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even into early adulthood.

Reunification therapy aims to reduce the unwanted impacts of high-conflict divorce, such as trauma and communication challenges.

Reunification therapy can also rebuild parent-child connections after a child has spent time in foster care.

Children enter care for various reasons, but circumstances can sometimes improve when a parent gets helpful support.

Once it’s safe for a child to leave care and return home, reunification therapy can facilitate this transition.

There are several elements that can contribute to successful reunification. A 2022 research review listed the following helpful strategies:

  • awareness raising
  • parent partnering
  • motivation building
  • parent homework
  • goal setting
  • parent coaching
  • role modeling
  • parent training

Family reunification therapy may be more effective if it involves the entire family, not just the estranged parent and child.

However, it can still work when it involves just the child and parent in question.

Therapy might start with indirect contact, such as exchanging letters, then progress to a non-threatening interaction, like playing a game. As the parent and child become increasingly comfortable with each other, they can progress to discussing issues like the events that led to their separation.

A trained therapist can teach all parties involved supportive strategies such as how to:

  • listen without reacting
  • recognize and accept small, gradual improvements
  • participate in negotiation
  • respond to each other in a way that is welcoming
  • shift their focus away from the court order
  • reduce stress and anxiety related to interactions

If an estranged parent said or did things that caused or worsened the parent-child alienation, parent coaching, and training may improve parent-child interactions.

A 2016 research summary by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services listed several factors associated with an increased likelihood of reunification success after children had been in care outside of the home:

Reunification can take time, so it can help to approach the process with a mindset of patience and acceptance.

It might seem like all you and your child do is play a board game once a week, but that might be enough to open the door to a future relationship that might not have developed otherwise.

A child can experience prolonged emotional harm if they’re forced to participate in reunification therapy before they are ready or willing.

It can also be damaging to attempt reunification therapy in some situations that may not be solvable.

Examples include:

If you or a parent you know is living with these issues, it’s vital to seek support and treatment for oneself prior to attempting reunification.

Sometimes a parent has taken all the steps necessary as requested by the therapist, but family reunification therapy still doesn’t work. Persisting with reunification attempts against the child’s wishes may be harmful.

In this case, a parent can communicate their love and commitment to the child but agree to take a break from therapy, with the hope that a reconciliation may be possible in the future.

The goal of family reunification therapy is to reconnect alienated parents with their children.

Divorce or household circumstances necessitating out-of-home child care services are common reasons for the breakdown of parent-child relationships.

Children benefit from having relationships with both their parents, making reunification therapy a valuable process.

In the event that reunification doesn’t work, the most beneficial strategy is to respect the child’s wishes and take a break from therapy with the hope of resuming communication in the future.