From the Therapist's Desk

Integrating an Estranged Parent Back into the 2-Home Family

There are several important considerations to include in the development of a plan for changing the family structure when an estranged parent is returning.

How old was the child when this parent last had an active role in their life and how old are they now?

An absence of over a few months for a child age 3 and younger may mean there is not much memory of the missing parent or memory of a relationship. It's essential for the returning parent to educate him or herself about the developmental needs and milestones missed during the absence, as well as to learn the current developmental needs, tasks and goals now.

What were the circumstances that lead to the loss of contact between the parent and the child and what memory does the child have of those events?

Children who witnessed frightening behavior (domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, high conflict couple relationship) may feel anxious at the idea of integrating the absent parent back into the new family structure.

If the parent had a problem behavior or illness, it has to be stable/resolved with a clear plan for continuity of recovery/stability. This is essential in order to honestly reassure the child that the returning parent is a safe and loving person who can be relied upon.

Are there unresolved feelings/issues/wounds/traumas in the adult/couple relationship?

If either parent is still emotionally and negatively engaged with the past and unforgiving toward each other, the restructuring of this family will probably not succeed. Couples resolution therapy for high conflict and/or estranged coparents is a critical component in ensuring the success of this process for many former intimate partners.

What is your child's history of loss and trauma?

It will be important to assess the number and types of losses your child has experienced as well as an events that have caused them trauma, such as parental conflict. Together these factors may impact the length of time it will take your child to manage the reunification process.

Children can be traumatized by abandonment, abuse, and neglect and witnessing verbal or physical conflict between their parents.

When children lose contact with a parent they can experience a range of emotions as part of their grief including confusion, anger, sadness, anxiety, anticipation, shame and guilt. If children suffer multiple losses, like losing significant caregivers, extended family, friends through change of school or home that often accompany a family breakup, then the losses add up.

The more losses a child sustains, the more difficult it becomes for them to bounce back from other experiences.

The level of cooperation or conflict between parents is very often the reason the child lost a parent in the first place. When the coparenting relationship is the cause of the estrangement, it is Mom and Dad who will need to work on change first, if the child is going to get the help he or she needs.