When two parents become separated or get divorced, there’s often the potential for considerable trauma for the child or children involved.

For many divorced families, a parent may become estranged from his or her child. When this essential parental relationship is disrupted, reunification therapy can provide helpful solutions. The family is often referred through their legal counsel to this specialized program. Reunification therapy is a unique, team treatment approach that is family focused and has the primary goal of re-establishing appropriate, healthy child-parent relationships.

“When this situation occurs, I generally recommend that the family commit to a reunification therapy program,” says Shelley Behr, MSW, RSW, an individual, family and couples counsellor who practices in Richmond, B.C. “This is a unique, family-focused treatment approach, the purpose of which is to re-establish appropriate, healthy child-parent relationships.”

Reunification therapy is used to address circumstances during which the parent-child relationship remains intact, but a high conflict between the parents is negatively impacting the children.

Reunification therapy is based on the best interests of the children involved and is designed to help with complex family issues.  Containment and direction is provided for these high-conflict divorce situations based on the needs of the child.

An expert in reunification therapy, Shelley Behr coordinates a treatment plan that brings together a team of experienced therapists who are aligned in their approach and practice and who work together through team meetings, thereby streamlining the service to the family.

This helps make for an extremely efficient and cost-effective program.

“There are a number of reasons a child-parent relationship may have become disrupted,” says Shelley Behr.  “Maybe there were long absences due to geographic distances between the child and parent, or more complex issues such as parental alienation or estrangement, substance abuse, mental illness, mental health issues, violence, abuse or incarcerations.”

For this reason, she says, a coordinated approach is essential among the therapeutic team if parental alienation or estrangement issues have been identified. “The involvement of the entire family system is the most effective treatment path,” she says.

Shelley Behr has extensive experience assisting families in repairing parent-child relationships within the context of high conflict divorces. She says that, “When a child resists maintaining a relationship with one parent, this is usually a sign of much deeper family issues.” The first step, she says, is to differentiate between realistic estrangement and parental alienation. Following that, a specific treatment plan is adapted to focus on the needs in that particular situation.

She notes that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan. “Each family needs an individualized treatment plan that focuses on the specific issues that are impacting the parent-child relationships.” she says. “The therapeutic team works with each family member towards a goal of re-establishing a more appropriate child-parent dynamic, as well as protecting the children from parental conflict.”

Read More: Divorce with a Spouse You Can’t Find: How to Facilitate the Process

Before beginning reunification therapy, Behr says the parents are asked to sign a treatment agreement in which the goals are outlined. This can either be signed through an agreement between the parents, or the family may be court-ordered to participate in the program.

“Following that,” says Behr, “there’s an initial assessment phase, then a treatment implementation phase, then a period of ongoing therapeutic maintenance.” She adds that in most cases, the team will consist of a case manager, a co-parenting therapist and a child therapist, but adds that variations may occur as each family’s needs are taken into consideration.