Children Who “Lose” a Parent

Advice from the experts on successful reunification.

by Sandra Morgan Little and Jan B. Gilman-Tepper

from the ABA Family Advocate Client Manual: Visitation/Parenting Time


Every single day all over this country, children are separated from a parent for a variety of reasons that range from  parental kidnapping, parental alienation, misconduct, incarceration, voluntary abandonment, military deployment, or placement away from a parent by a child services agency or the court. The cost to the child can be great. What follows are the voices of New Mexico child psychologists, therapists, social workers, and guardians ad litem who seek to aid such children and instruct judges,  attorneys, and parents about this great loss.

1.WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a child loses a parent due to parental kidnapping, misconduct, incarceration, voluntary abandonment, military deployment, or a child services placement outside the home?

Samuel Roll, Ph.D.:

“Every loss to a human being (including a child) has an emotional ‘cost’ to that person.

Freud said there are four kinds of losses:

“• The loss of the person one loves;

•  The loss of the love from chat loved person;

• The loss of what makes you ‘loveable’ (i.e., your status, what defines you as you);

•  The loss of self-esteem (or your own self-love) .

These actual losses,and even the threat of these losses, are a great cause of anxiety for human beings, regardless of culture or century.”

Barbara Wasylenki, LISW:

“There is the potential for all long separations from a parent to be traumatic for the child. In fact, there is a growing body of research into attachment and attachment disorders and the profound implications for future relationships and life functioning. Family courts are becoming more aware of this is research, which is so important in judicial decision-making.”

It is clearly advantageous for any separation to be a planned and anticipated one for which the child can be prepared, rather than an unplanned and unexpected one. It is possible for a traumatic separation to rise to the level of an ‘adverse childhood event,’ which can have serious implications for the child’s development. “Unexpected separation due to alienation, abduction, parental conflict, or even a timeshare that is inappropriate for the child’s age or developmental stage can create severe anxiety in the child. “Ideally, the child receives good parenting from each parent, and the good parenting of one (which includes maintaining the positive ‘presence’ of the other) continues when there is a separation. ”

Maureen Polikoff, MSW:

When a child loses a parent, the loss the child experiences depends on many variables, including the child’s age, stage of development, prior relationship with the missing parent, how the separation is presented to the child, and  most importantly,  how supportive the remaining parent is toward the child’s relationship with the absent parent.”

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,  guilt, etc. It can easily take two years for children to resolve their grief. If children suffer multiple losses, like losing significant caregivers or friends through change of school or home, which often accompany divorce, these losses add up.”

The more losses a child sustains, the more difficult it becomes for them to “bounce back” from other experiences. (Second Chances, A Guidebook for Parents Wishing to Reunite with their Children, presented by  Multnomah County  Family Court Services,  Fall  2009.”)

2.WHAT IS THE BEST WAY to reunite a child and a parent when the parent has been “missing” for a long while?

Michael Ollom, LISW:

“You must follow the pace of the child who is exper­iencing the reunification. Some basics are to use Mental health profession­als for reunification. Be aware that in most cases it is not appropriate to use the child’s therapist as the reunification   therapist, and be sure to get  formal  ‘buy­in’ to  the process from  both parents and  both  attorneys. Most importantly, make all interactions physically  and emotionally  safe.”

Samuel Roll, Ph.D.:

Preparing a child for reuniting with the lost parent is essential and one of the ways to do that is to make the ‘concept’ of that parent concrete to the child . Allow the child to have a picture of the lost parent in his or her room or explain where on a physical map the lost parent is located and place a pin on that location. Then put another pin in the location of the child to show the distance separating them. Of course, the main advice for the parent wanting reunification is to approach  the child as one would approach a timid and wild bunny. How would you approach a timid and wild bunny? You would approach slowly, speaking softly, and you would reassure die bunny that all is well.”

Barbara Wasylenki, LISW:

“In cases of ‘parental reunification ,’ the origin of the separation between the parent and the child are varied. I once worked with a Native American family in which the mother developed an illness that affected her behavior. The father was reluctant to allow her to spend time with their eight-year-old son, because he believed her to be cursed by spirits. In medical terminology, she had developed epilepsy. I knew I needed help.  I was able to ask a tribal elder and medicine man to help the father understand the illness using traditional rituals and concepts. Slowly the child and his mother were able to resume a relationship with the father’s understanding and approval , achieved through  the support of his community.”

Jane Levy, Esq. (guardian ad /item):

“In the vast majority of cases, reunification therapy is essential , even if the child hasn’t been exposed to negative statements about the absent parent from the ‘allied parent ‘ as it is often the child who feels guilt and rejection if a parent has been absent, no matter the reason for the absence. However, the duration of die therapy may be relatively short, and the child and parent may be able to have contact outside of therapy sessions, thus moving the relationship forward.”

3.HOW CAN A LEFT-BEHIND parent and/or caregiver help a child cope with the loss of a parent?

Samuel Roll, Ph.D.:

‘The role of the left-behind parent includes explaining to the child that the separation of the child and parent is not the child’s fault. The left-behind parent can give the child a calendar and help the child put stickers on the days the missing parent is supposed to return.”

Having the left-behind parent help the child with the calendar does two things:

(1)it gives the child something concrete to hold on to and

(2) it shows the left-behind parent’s approval of the child ‘s relationship with the absent parent.

The left-behind parent also should allow the child to have pictures of the missing parent in his or her room and to receive letters, packages, and phone calls, or any other contact from that parent. Lastly, the left­ behind parent should  try to assist the missing parent in showing up as promised and maintaining a regular schedule of visits, if possible.”

Jane Levy, Esq. (guardian ad /item):

“In one recent reunification case, the resisting  parent  (the mother)  became highly motivated for an expedited reunification when  the court found that she was interfering in the process and  suspended  the father’s child support  along with  ordering the mother  to pay  for all counseling for the children  and one hundred percent of the guardian ad litem fees. Mother had already tainted family therapy by encouraging the children to dislike the therapist.

At the mother’s request, I allowed the next step to be supervised visits (instead of family therapy). We quickly moved to supervised exchanges of the children  and then to unsupervised exchanges.

Within a  three-month  period, the children were spending alternating weekends at their father’s house. The children were so influenced by their mother that they followed her lead in what she supported and felt comfortable doing. I do not believe that this scenario is ideal in most families, but the goal for these children was to have a relationship with both parents, if possible. Allowing the previously resistant mother to dictate the schedule and to play an active role in the reunification plan was an opportunity for the reunification to be successful.”

Barbara Wasylenki, LISW:

“Parental loss can be devastating. Support from the remaining parent, sometimes aided by child cl1erapy, can be healing. If there is no chance of reunification, the child should be told this in a sensitive, age-appropriate way. The story can evolve as the child ages and can better tolerate more information. The child’s adjustment is fostered by stability and constancy in the relationship with the remaining parent and with supportive extended family members.”

4. WHEN A PARENT COMES BACK into the child’s life, what reunification plans have you      used?

Richard Reed, Ph.D.:

“The Situations are so variable, and really success depends on the pre-existing relationships from before the alienation or the absence. Success also depends on the age and resiliency of thee individual children. One thing I can say that applies across the board is that reunification takes a lot of hard work. A lot depends on  what got  the parents and the children  to this point.”



Maureen Polikoff, MSW:

“First of all, the definition of reunification therapy is to help reconnect parents and children, often ordered by the family court after a parent asks for court assistance to re-establish a relationship with their children. Success is most likely when both parents work through the emotional issues that led to the original separation.

I believe the following process is appropriate:

1 . A therapist conducts an assessment that includes individual sessions with each parent (and stepparent) and the children, in which each person shares their history, perspectives, and concerns about the process. The therapist educates the participants on the effects of alignment/estrangement on children, developmental issues, and family dynamics. Handouts may be provided and homework may be assigned. Following these sessions, feedback sessions are provided to each parent.

2. The therapist decides whether reunification should move forward and/or provides the rationale for why it is to be delayed or nor continued.

3. If the process moves forward, the therapist formulates a treatment plan, derailing frequency, duration , and structure of the process.

4. Reunification can  be a lengthy process due  to  its complicated nature and the intricacies of specific family situations.”

5. WHICH REUNIFICATION PLANS have worked the best? What hasn’t worked?

Richard Reed, Ph.D .:

Having the parents  and children in family therapy can work, but it takes time and a lot of work by the parents. There isn’t a lot of research  in this area or longitudinal studies that tell us what techniques are successful. I have seen a study of college age adults that were separated from a parent when they were children due to a relocation of their custodial parent,  which  showed without  question that college age adults still felt a loss of connection  with  the left­ behind  parents.”

Maureen Polikoff, LISW:

“I had one situation where a father didn’t know he even had a child until the child was 12 years old. When he discovered he had a daughter, the father wanted to spend time with the child. The child was resistant because of the very negative comments her mother had made about the ‘abandoning’ father. The reunification  therapy  took a long time, and  after  therapy and  short visits, the child just could  not  reconcile the picture she had been  painted of the ‘abandoning’ father with  the man she had come to know as a nice guy. The daughter told me she didn’t want to come to therapy any longer or see her father. The father, with great disappointment, decided to let it go, and therapy sessions ceased. About a year later, I received a phone call from the father, who said  the daughter had contacted  him  on  her own  and  was now living with him. So sometimes, reunification therapy can  work.  Don’t give up hope.”

Barbara   Wasylenki.    LISW:

“Reunification   success is  fostered by  both  parents participating in the support of the child during the process. Sometimes the allied parent is encouraged to participate by creating a timeline by which the reunification can  occur.  The reunification  therapist’s job  is to support the parents in respecting the child ‘s pace, as the absent parent is slowly accepted into the child ‘s life. This must be a collaborative and child-sensitive, rather than an adversarial, process.

Success is more likely if the allied or  residential parent can  agree to the reunification  timeline and  help plan our  when  the formerly  absent  parent will see the child. I tell the formerly absent parent, if we don’t get the ‘buy ­in ‘ from  the allied  parent, reunification will not work. So, even if the formerly absent parent only gets to see the child for 20 minutes or a half hour to start with, it’s a start. The formerly absent parent wants to just jump in and start overnight visits immediately so the child and parent can  pick up where they left off. If the therapist allows that, usually the allied parent works against reunification. Reunification must occur at the pace of the child and the allied parent.”

Jane Levy, Esq. (guardian  ad /item):

“The ones [reunification plans] that work the best have two committed parents (or caregivers), experienced professionals assisting in the plan, with ongoing court monitoring and strict court-ordered consequences for noncompliance. The plans that have not worked have failed because of one or more of the following:

”   1 . The resisting parent alienated the children from the parent seeking reunification for an extended period of time without            any consequences from the court.

  1. The parent seeking reintegra­tion gives up because the process is taking too long. Sometimes, the parent seeking reunification  will blame the residential parent when it is the child who needs more time or is still coping with past trauma related  to  the absent  parent.
  1. The parent seeking reunifica­tion actually abused the child , but will not admit to it. The child may be able to have supervised visits with  the  parent seeking reunifica­tion , but it [reunification] will  not ever  progress. The child is looking for an admission that he or she may never get.
  1. A guardian ad litem or neutral and experienced parenting coordinator was not appointed to monitor the parties’ compliance with the plan and to make changes in the best interests of the child.”


6. DOES ANY OF THIS APPLY to parents who are away from their child for shorter periods of time, such as military deployment?

Gayle Zieman, Ph.D.:

In   2005,  Gayle Zieman volunteered to serve military families in transition at a U.S. military base outside the continental United Scares. When he arrived at the base with 7,000 soldiers living on base, 5,000 had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. There were some 6,000 family members on the base. He was asked to join organized family evening support groups, mostly potlucks, to learn about the needs of the left­ behind family members. He also spoke with teachers at the base schools to learn about the needs of the children in their classes. He found a range of symptoms in  children  separated from their soldier parent, which  ran from minimal disruption and no  characterized by a calm, accepting, and understanding attitude, could casually and calmly talk about the other parent and encourage a connection with the other parent.

These parents would encourage the use of the military version of Skype in the “yellow ribbon” room where family members could speak with and see their deployed soldier at fixed intervals from their place of deployment.

  1. The left-behind parent, characterized by a calm, accepting, and understanding attitude, could casually and calmly talk about the other parent and encourage a connection with the other parent. These parents would encourage the use of the military version of Skype in the “yellow ribbon” room where family members could speak with and see their deployed soldier at fixed intervals from their place of deployment. with the children’s feelings and the parent’s feelings.
  2. The left-behind  parent kept the missing parent in the home, usually  through  pictures  of the soldier, and  parent  and  children could  talk freely about where their deployed  parent  was.
  3. The left-behind parent modeled trust and genuineness with the children’s feelings and the parent’s feelings.

In reuniting with  the soldier at the  homecoming, the following may help:

  1. Encourage the soldier to go slowly upon returning to the family and not to expect to pick up where he or she left off. In other words, whatever activities or duties the returning parent wants to assume need a corresponding response from the other parent as to something he or she will not do, will stop doing, will hand over, or will share as a parental  duty. Thus, the parents need to talk and coordinate as to what the returning parent will do or rake on so that there will not be an arm wrestle around parental duties.
  2. Discuss how the family has moved on since the soldier was deployed, how some changes have occurred, and that expectations need to be reasonable.
  3. Advise the returning soldier to be thoughtful about reasserting himself and his needs over those of the children, such as, asking the family to leave pre-planned activities and friends to go “fishing” two days after he or she returned home.
  4. Accept that there may be “new rules” in the household since the soldier was deployed and that the returning parent often will need  to  relinquish some prior authority in the family because the  left-behind  parent  has  stepped in  to  manage. The soldier should understand that in general the family has functioned without him or her for many months. Often  the returning soldier must recognize that the family has done OK without him or her and acknowledge the letdown or blow to self-esteem.

Some people called the difficulty of reuniting the soldier with  the left-behind  family and  children  “The Yellow  Ribbon Syndrome”  (nor  an official military or psychological  term) . The U.S. Army program allowed parent-soldiers to receive counseling anonymously and quickly upon  their return to base, with no reports to superiors. The program  provided access to counselors for the families at the base library meeting rooms, at the base food court, in the chaplain’s office, and directly on the job site. “I once met with a struggling father at the maintenance shop where we did a whole counseling session of about 25 minutes, leaning against a Humvee,” noted Zieman. The accessibility of counseling services helped to make many soldiers’ transitions easier.

This relates in many ways to reunification issues in civilian couples where one parent  has been gone and now wants to return to a child’s life. There is still the difficulty of attempting to “pick-up” where the missing parent left off. In the absence of a parent, the other parent naturally must pick up the slack. The left-behind parent must take over control of everything, making it very difficult for the other parent to resume authority and, in the process, unseat the left-behind  parent.





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