Reunification difficulties - when a child refuses contact with a parent - are a deceivingly common, complex and distressing problem within divorced families.
A black-and-white scenario develops in which the child becomes overly close to one parent and co-constructs a severed or damaged bond with the other parent. The clinical literature on this subject terms the overly close parent the in-parent because he/she is on the “inside” of the child’s psychological world. For obvious reasons, the other parent is classified as the out-parent.
A central tenant to successful reunification treatment (patching up the severed relationship and stabilizing the parenting plan) is that all three family members - the child, in-parent and out-parent - contribute to the unhealthy outcome of contact refusal.
There has been a strong tendency to oversimplify the process and blame or highlight one figure in this group effort. “Alienation,” a well-known term in the zeitgeist, points a finger at one of the parent’s, usually the in-parent (loyalty bind). “Estrangement” is a concept that zooms in on the out-parent as the primary perpetrator (abandonment). “Visitation refusal or noncompliance” is a more recent concept that tends to reflect child-based factors (immaturely inexplicable defiance).
This debate is smoke and mirrors. Reunification difficulties is always a team effort and, often times, there are trends. For instance, the child may be overly-parentified in the sense that he/she seeks a caretaking role by stepping into the co-parent conflict and rejecting the out-parent merely because it is sensed that this gesture would gain the in-parent’s favor. The in-parent may be overly-protective and quick to misperceive a sense of threat and danger with the other parent’s caregiving. The out-parent may struggle to perform well in the parenting role, such as understanding and satisfying the child’s more advanced social-emotional needs.
The prognosis on reunification difficulties, at least on an anecdotal level, is worse than it should be, in large part because families hit an impasse, fail to collaborate around third-party support, and move through an over-booked court process. As a custody evaluator appointed by a Judge to evaluate the underlying causes of a stalled or severed parent-child relationship (and make recommendations), I often do not receive a referral until at least six months if not years after the problem has surfaced within the family. The mere passage of time since a child’s last safe/successful exposure to the out-parent can create a phobic level of fear within the child that now adds to an already diverse and intertwined array of contributing factors.
All of this is a way of saying that the urge to sever the out-parent’s involvement with the child is strong; the in-parent, the child, and, often times, the child’s individual therapist, align in an effort to reject the increasingly-stressful presence of the out-parent. The out-parent’s resolve begins to weaken with hopelessness against the mounting pressure, and the court’s uncertainty about changing what has become the status quo further cements the inertia.
As a psychologist well-versed in matters of attachment theory, working models of interpersonal behavior, and general principles of psychological stability, I often find myself pushing back against this pressure due to the following notion:
While a meaningfully positive and stable re-attachment between the child and out-parent is best, the end goal can, at the bare minimum, should be a highly-structured attempt to superficially repair the rapport and construct a sensibly limited parenting plan. If, in the aftermath of reunification difficulties, a child can move down one of these two life paths, then long-term health outcomes for success remain preserved.
If a reunification or repair attempt is refused or partially/dysfunctionally attempted, the child moves experiences the third option and unhealthiest option - a damaged and unresolved primary attachment.
It is not about the out-parent’s rights as a parent or even the child’s short-term sense of anxiety at re-engaging with an estranged parental figure; it is about the family system doing its very best to steer the child toward repair and resolution, and away from unresolved damage, lingering failure, and irreparable loss. The consequences of this third option on a child’s health outcomes are only beginning to be grasped by research, and are likely severe, including chronic difficulties regulating emotions, stabilizing identity and forming meaningful romantic attachments.
Below is a birds-eye view of a standard reunification therapy framework.
Phase One: The therapist has in-depth discussions with the child, in-parent and out-parent (all together) about the theoretical benefits for reengagement and reunification.
Phase Two: The therapist constructs a safe, small-step approach to a heavily-orchestrated parenting plan between child and out-parent (starting with short, therapeutically monitored visits and expanding to a meaningful routine of unregulated contact).
Phase Three: As contact between the child and out-parent resumes, the therapist promotes psychologically skillful behavior in all three family members simultaneously and perpetually:
Both parents learn to better manage co-parent disputes and ensure the child is removed “from the middle.”
The child learns to better self-soothe and effectively navigate conflict.
The out-parent learns to parent more skillfully.
The in-parent learns to better manage worries/anxieties/fears in order to effectively support the reunification process.
Families faced with reunification difficulties should seek out psychologists with specialty training in reunification.
Further, the out-parent would be well advised to ask/beg for the in-parent’s willingness to engage in such an inherently anxiety-provoking (but ultimately rewarding) treatment process.
Dr. Jeremy Clyman earned a master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology (PsyD) from Yeshiva University. He completed three years of doctoral-level clinical externships in neurocognitive assessment, couples and family treatment, and cognitive behavioral for adolescents, adults and older adults.