As therapists, we are called to be ethically responsible and cause no harm to our clients. When conducting Court-Ordered Reconciliation Counseling, the best interest of the child must be kept a priority. This must be continually assessed, given the complex histories of families that present for reconciliation counseling. In some situations, work with the parents and children individually must be conducted before children are willing and able to safely participate in reconciliation counseling. Here are some areas to consider before proceeding with parent-child sessions:
1. Trauma History
In the majority of reconciliation cases, some trauma history will be present. These traumas could include exposure to parental conflict, incarceration, use of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, neglect, child endangerment and child abuse. In order for reconciliation to occur, these traumas need to be resolved. Both the child and the parent can work together to help the child resolve these traumas. The parents often need coaching in how to respond understandingly rather than defensively to children when discussing these experiences. Parents must be able and willing to stay calm in sessions before this work is possible. The therapist should not continue with reconciliation counseling if there is a high risk of the child being re-traumatized by the contact with their parent.
2. Loyalty Binds
A child is placed in a loyalty bind when they feel as though they have to choose one parent over another. Parents must be made aware of how they may be placing their children in loyalty binds and change their behaviors in order for children to feel as though they are “allowed” to reconcile with their estranged parent. This may involve joint sessions with the primary caregiver and the child where the primary caregiver expresses support and encouragement for reconciliation—or whatever may be in the child’s best interest.
3. Pre-Existing Conditions
Some children may have depressive, anxiety, or behavioral disorders that interfere with their ability to cope with reconciliation with a parent. If pre-existing conditions are not well managed and coping skills are not built prior to reconciliation, the added stress of rebuilding a broken relationship may worsen the symptoms of the previous disorder. A mental health diagnosis is not reason in itself to avoid reconciliation counseling, as parental separation may be a contributing factor to the symptoms. SFT therapists should be cautious and collaborate with the child’s mental health therapist in order to be sensitive to pre-existing conditions. Therapists must assess for self-harm and risk of violence towards others, especially when a history of these symptoms is present. If there is a risk of harm to self or others, reconciliation counseling should not proceed until it can be done safely.
4. Child’s Willingness to Participate
Children may present to therapy very resistant to seeing their estranged parent, possibly for one of the above reasons. This resistance must be explored. Motivational Interviewing techniques can be especially useful during this time to identify, examine, and resolve any ambivalence about meeting with the parent. The child must be reassured of their own safety and that reconciliation does not mean they must maintain contact or change their living arrangements. If after exploring the resistance and discussing all possible consequences the child continues to refuse, the therapist is obligated to respect the boundary set by the child not to meet with the parent.
Staying Child-Focused can be a struggle when estranged parents become impatient about seeing their child and beginning therapeutic work. The estranged parent may place blame on the therapist or the primary caregiver for this delay in joint sessions, however, the therapist may continue to be assertive in advocating the best interest of the child and helping the parents to understand the reasoning for the delay in the most sensitive manner. While systemic therapist work towards the best interest of the family system as a whole, SFT therapists must pay special attention to the best interest of the child as parents involved in these cases often struggle to stay child-focused.
Join us at this year’s ALLIANCE FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES National Conference on October 15-17 in Pittsburgh to learn more about how you can take this course, bring this program to your agency, as well as meet Maurie Heidish, founder and creator of the Specialized Family Therapy program.