Rediscovering a loving parent after alienation: what therapy works?

By April Cunningham, Associate Editor

A growing body of academic research supports the need to offer specialized programs for families torn apart by parental alienation, says Toronto family lawyer Brian Ludmer.

Modelled after the Family Bridges program in Texas, this form of “reconciliation therapy” differs from traditional therapy by offering a directive intervention, founded on accountability and with measured milestones and practical suggestions, using a psycho-educational approach as opposed to therapy. It often leads to “remarkable results,” says Ludmer, principal of LudmerLaw.

“These programs transform a broken family system into one that is healthy,” he tells

Ludmer has broad experience handling family law cases involving parental alienation, a form of psychological abuse when a child has completely rejected a parent after being “force-fed” a series of unfair assumptions, mistaken impressions and illogical inferences about the other parent. He says these psycho-educational programs are effective if they are properly structured with accountability and often with a temporary “time-out” for the favoured parent. They can succeed, particularly when all other attempts to restructure a family after separation have failed, including mediation, conventional therapy and even “judicial admonitions.”

“These programs were developed to deal with intractable family dysfunction, which is by definition hurting the children, where nothing else has worked and nothing else shows promise of working,” Ludmer says.

There are three hallmarks of parental alienation, signs that traditional therapy likely won’t work. Firstly, the hierarchies and boundaries common to intact families do not exist, he says. Secondly, the children lack empathy and finally, there is an unhealthy alliance of one parent with the child or children against the other parent.

“It’s chaos and it’s very unhealthy behaviour on the part of the children,” Ludmer says.

“These families have tried everything else — whether it be court orders or various therapies — and they come to a point where they are faced with either giving up or taking it to a long and expensive trial.”

But is this just another form of therapy that will fail as well? No, Ludmer says. “It has a history of working.”

He explains the reason is therapy is founded on a therapeutic alliance that does not exist in these programs. In therapy, the professional listens openly without challenging or criticizing the patient, in search of a joint journey of self-discovery. There is no attempt to direct or compel change with accountability.

“Aspects of traditional therapy are not a problem when there is a willing patient prepared to make changes with urgency,” Ludmer says. “That’s not what these families need. They have unwilling participants, and a favoured parent and child who may attempt to hijack the therapeutic process and turn it into yet another battleground.”

Ludmer points to recent academic research that proves alternative therapy works. According the Journal of Family Therapy, a series of peer-reviewed articles have pointed to success in changing custodial or residential arrangements in favour of the targeted parent. They also point to the need for specialized therapy and a co-ordinated approach from therapists and legal practitioners.

Research in the American Journal of Family Therapy also confirms that traditional approaches do not work with families dealing with parental alienation. A recent study examined the Family Reflections Reunification Program in British Columbia, which had a 95 per cent success rate. The analysis confirmed the success of allowing the children to spend time with the rejected parent.

Preliminary findings demonstrated “a sudden unexpected separation from the favoured parent is not harmful or traumatic for a child when an effective transfer in custody occurs,” the article says.

“Once children are removed from the favoured parent … they begin to feel emotionally safe and steadfastly reconnect with the rejected parent.”

Ludmer says these programs work because of their pscyho-educational nature.

“There is a goal and everyone is accountable to achieve the goal: to reconnect the children with the rejected parent,” he says. “These programs are meant to teach critical thinking skills, to re-teach empathy and reality-testing. These are all skills that will help the children re-discover for themselves the loving and competent parent they always had, but rejected.”

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