Rebuilding Shattered Families

Reconciliation & Reunification

Shattered families who have been through the court system are often in serious need of mental health intervention.  In these situations, not only partners/parents, but also children have been through financially and emotionally bankrupting experiences.  Courts maintain a priority of reunification with even the most dysfunctional family system.  While able to mandate access and/or supervised visitation, merely placing parents and children together does not remediate ongoing emotional difficulties.  In fact, judges and attorneys have learned that a therapeutic intervention to re-introduce divided families is essential in securing the best interest of the child.

Family therapy with estranged/alienated/abusive parents is rigorous and demanding work. A sound theory of practice and application is needed to provide a framework from which to successfully operate. Strategic family therapy is a model that easily translates to family work with parents and children who have been separated and denied access to one another. According to strategic family therapy, there are four categories of problems that result from the needs of family members either being met or not met. These four needs are: (1) the desire to control and dominate, (2) the desire to be loved, (3) the desire to love and protect others, and (4) the desire to repent and forgive. These four needs represent basic tasks in family therapy with dysfunctional, court-involved families.

Meeting in an office setting can be quite intimidating for family members who have not been face to face in weeks, months, even years.  There is a tendency to over-focus on every work, every nonverbal cue of the other person.  Children are particularly disinclined to trust the process and have difficulty using the clinical setting as a therapeutic means of reconciling with someone who makes the child feel frightened, angry or other negative responses.

Using Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, family members are reintroduced to one another using techniques that bring the clinical focus to a basic and safe level.  Children are guided through psychoeducational activities how to recognize the fight/flight/freeze responses in themselves and their horse.  They are taught to recognize triggering emotions and thoughts, but change the outcome of their behaviors.  Through working with horses (which are much larger than they are), children build mastery over what seems to be an insurmountable task.  They find confidence in themselves and generalize their new abilities to the parent-child dynamic.  With borrowed courage from their equine activities, children are better able to assert their needs, lead discussions, demonstrate empathy and remain open to experiences that are new, but frightening.

Using Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, parents are also guided through psychoeducational activities related to fight/flight/freeze.  They are tasked be being mindful of the ways they may prompt reactions from the horse by going too fast or too slow.  Parents are guided through activities which demonstrate ways to maintain their horse (and children) in an optimal level of arousal – reducing stress along the say.  Parents learn to listen,  to demonstrate patience and to show appropriate compassion to a cautious animal and child.  By combining parents and children in later sessions, both focus on the horse between them as the symbol of their relationship.  They are able to take a better stance when describing their own contributions to the current day problems, with respect for where they have come and where they hope to go.