• Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

Factors for Successful Outcomes When Alienating Behaviors are in a Family in Conflict? (Part Five)


If you have already been following this series, you have a better idea of what parental alienation is and isn’t (Part One), the effect alienation has on children (Part Two), what behaviors contribute to alienation in a family in conflict (Part Three), and some idea of what is included in a clinician’s treatment plan (Part Four). In this last part of the series, I want you to know what factors can lead to a successful outcome for a family in conflict when alienation is suspected.

Some of the first questions I get when I am appointed by a court to provided reunification therapy for a family where a child resists or refuses to follow a parenting plan, have to do with when we know the job is done. Usually the question is:

  • “How many visits do we need to have?” (Often said by the child)

  • “Can we get all this done in the next month so I can see my child?” (Often said by the resisted parent)

  • “Why do we have to have so many appointments” (Often said by the favored parent)

The truth is that therapists who accept referrals for reunification therapy can’t predict how many appointments will be needed, how fast the family will progress, or which one of the parties in a family is going to need the most attention. Sometimes it is the child who benefits from learning effective coping mechanisms for how he or she feels, and the child’s irrational beliefs may need to be addressed. Sometimes it is the favored parent who needs to reframe the problem and learn ways to differentiate his or her experience with the other parent from the child’s experience with the other parent. Sometimes the parent who is being resisted by a child is the one who needs attention learning to provide empathetic responses, refraining from telling his or her side of the story, or learning to understand the perspective of the child and the other parent without feeling like their own voice is not heard.

My job, when I’m the therapist providing reunification work for a family where there is a resistance or refusal dynamic, is to work myself out of a job. In other words, when I do my job and a family does their job, then I would not be needed anymore. The family could function on their own, in a healthier manner, and follow the parenting plan the court has ordered for them.

That’s it. That is my opinion.

What contributes to the greatest opportunity for a successful outcome, according to the literature on resistance and refusal, are the following factors:

  • The intervention is early when the resistance/refusal has not been present for very long.

  • The child is younger in age.

  • The parents have the capacity and history of the ability to communicate even though they prefer not to.

  • There are opportunities for improvements in co-parenting dynamics

  • There is an absence of reactive abuse, neglect, or abandonment by either parent in response to the child’s affinity or activities with the other parent.

  • The whole family, including siblings and extended family, are also involved in therapy.

  • There is an opportunity for desensitizing and planned activities between the parent and child with appropriate expectations set in advance.

  • Therapy, sometimes individual therapy for the child, assists in moving the child’s thought process, in an effort to assist the child to manage anxiety as they move from avoidance to approach in their relationship with a parent.

One of the main components assisting with a successful outcome is the presence of a court order for all parties to participate in reunification therapy. I do not accept referrals to assist families, when there is resistance or refusal to follow a parenting plan, unless I am appointed by a judge in a court order. I must have a court order as is the case for most experienced professionals doing this work. The reason is to include consequences for a parent who is not compliant. The reason is also in the best interests of children to support the process continuing. It is difficult for a child to begin the process only to be stalled by one of the parents not complying.

Simply put, a court order in place protects the child’s right of access to both parents.

For more information about resistance and refusal dynamics in a family going through a divorce or through a modification after a divorce, see the other parts of this series on my blog. There are many resources out there that talk about these dynamics. It is important to reiterate that clinicians who work with families who have this dynamic be experienced and knowledgeable in this area. Not everyone who says they work with families where alienation is occurring, or where there is resistance or refusal, is appropriately knowledgeable. Ask for a copy of their curriculum vitae to make sure they attend trainings from national experts in this area and that they have the proper training to work with children. There is no formal “certification” or “license” to provide reunification therapy. It is likely that there never will be for good reason. This is an area of treatment that requires a vast knowledge of the research in the areas of attachment, family dynamics, child development, high conflict divorce, and trauma. This vast knowledge is an important factor for those who provide any type of therapy for families in high conflict in order to work in the best interest of children.

Until next time,


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