Family Bridges: A Workshop for
Troubled and Alienated Parent-Child Relationships
Family Bridges is an innovative educational and experiential program that helps unreasonably alienated children and adolescents adjust to living with a parent they claim to hate or fear. An increasing number of independent practitioners in the U. S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa are trained to lead the program. Although alternative interventions exist, which Dr. Warshak is available to discuss with interested parties, Family Bridges is described on this website because, in his opinion, currently it is the program that has the best chance of helping to alleviate moderate-severe alienation.
In the past Dr. Warshak provided treatment for families with alienated children and conducted Family Bridges workshops. In order to devote more time to his research and writing Dr. Warshak does not currently provide such services. He continues to investigate the effectiveness of various interventions including outcomes of the Family Bridges workshop and has no business or legal affiliation with professionals who conduct any intervention for alienated children including Family Bridges.
In some cases the court has determined that a child’s best interests are served by placing the child in the custody of a rejected parent and suspending contact for a period of time with the other parent. In other cases, the favored parent is no longer available to care for the child. This may occur, for instance, if an abducted child is found and returned to the rejected parent, and the abducting parent is either in jail, prohibited from seeing the child, or remains underground or out of the country in order to avoid capture.
Children who reject a parent after divorce, who refuse or resist contact with a parent, or whose contact with a parent is characterized either by extreme withdrawal or gross contempt, represent one of the greatest challenges facing courts, divorced families, and the professionals who serve them. Family Bridges was designed to help families whom courts and therapists have traditionally viewed as beyond help.
Led by a team of two professionals, Family Bridges offers a safe and secure environment that gives participants, in four consecutive days, what they need to restore a normal relationship. Beyond reconnecting children with their parents, the program teaches children how to think critically and how to maintain balanced, realistic, and compassionate views of both parents. The program also helps children develop skills to resist outside pressures that can lead them to act against their judgment-a valuable lesson for teens. Parents learn how to sensitively manage their children's behavior, and the family learns tools to effectively communicate and manage conflicts.
The children and the rejected parent go through Family Bridges together as one family in a private workshop and not with a group of families. This allows the workshop leaders to schedule and tailor the program to meet the exact needs of each individual family. Usually Family Bridges takes place in a vacation setting, although in some cases the program has been conducted in the family home.
The Families Served
Family Bridges is one option to consider for a family in which a child's view of a parent and other relatives is unrealistic, the child refuses contact with a parent or shows extreme reluctance to spend time with that parent, and the family needs help adjusting to court orders that place the child in the sole custody of the rejected parent and suspend contact between the child and the other parent until specified conditions are met. Courts make such orders in cases where the evidence demonstrates that the rejected parent is better suited to meet the child's needs and that the child's contact with the favored parent will make it more difficult for the child to repair the damaged relationship.
Family Bridges may also be appropriate to consider in situations where a child’s relationship with a parent is damaged to a less severe degree, but the child’s negative attitudes and behavior toward the parent are not a reasonable and proportionate response to that parent’s behavior toward the child.
Families Not Served
Family Bridges is not for every family in which children reject a parent. It is not for:
- Children whose rejection is reasonable, proportionate to and warranted by the history of the child's relationship with the rejected parent
- Families in which the court finds that a child's relationship with a rejected parent is severely damaged but that overall it is in the child's best interests to remain with the favored parent, such as in a case where the rejected parent’s physical health renders her or him incapable of exercising custodial responsibilities
- Children whose alienation is not likely to become severe
- Families in which children who reject a parent will continue to spend most of their time away from that parent, or who will be with the rejected parent only for a short period of time before returning to the home of the favored parent. If, for instance, a rejected parent will see a child only during school vacation periods, Family Bridges is probably not the answer to the child’s alienation.
Often a parent, attorney, or judge hopes that this program can resolve a custody dispute by repairing a damaged parent-child relationship in a situation that fails to meet the enrollment prerequisites or when the favored parent maintains custody and significant residential time with the child or will resume custody upon completion of the workshop. Unfortunately, this program is not designed for such circumstances and usually is not offered in these circumstances.
In selected cases when the standard enrollment criteria are not met, Family Bridges may be offered to families with irrationally alienated children when there is good reason to believe that the family can benefit from the program. The workshop has had some success with families that did not meet the regular entrance criteria. An example might be a family in which a child’s relationship with a parent is damaged to a less severe degree, but the child’s negative attitudes and behavior toward the parent are not a reasonable and proportionate response to that parent’s behavior toward the child.
Services to the Parent Whom the Children Favor
In some cases, courts will suspend contact between children and their favored parent until the parent demonstrates to the court that they are willing and able to support the children’s progress in their relationship with the formerly rejected parent. A modified version of Family Bridges may be available to parents who want to develop the knowledge and skills to help protect their children from alienation and who want to show the court that the resumption of contact with their children will be in the children’s best interests.
Goals of Family Bridges
- Facilitate, repair, and strengthen the children’s ability to maintain healthy relationships with both parents
- Help children do what they can to avoid being in the middle of their parents’ conflicts
- Strengthen children’s critical thinking skills Protect children from unreasonably rejecting a parent in the future
- Help children maintain balanced views and a more realistic perspective of each parent as well as themselves
- Help family members develop compassionate views of each other’s actions rather than excessively harsh or critical views
- Strengthen the family’s ability to communicate effectively with each other and to manage conflicts in a productive manner
- Strengthen the parents’ skills in nurturing their children by setting and enforcing appropriate limits and avoiding psychologically intrusive interactions.
Scientific Foundation of Family Bridges
The principles, syllabus, and procedures of Family Bridges are firmly grounded in well-accepted peer-reviewed scientific research in cognitive, social, and developmental psychology, sociology, and social neuroscience. In essence, the program offers an intensive course on concepts taught in formal classrooms, adapting and tailoring the syllabus, selection of materials, and procedures to the developmental level and circumstances of the children. The design of the lessons and learning environment is consistent with scientific evidence-based instruction principles.
This scientific basis for Family Bridges was noted by Dr. Joan Kelly, a leading authority on divorce, who wrote: “In the overall development of Family Bridges, its goals and principles, and particularly the varied and relevant materials selected for use with parents and children, the incorporation of relevant social science research was evident. Further, the daily structure and manner of presentation of the Family Bridges Workshop were guided by well-established evidence-based instruction principles and incorporated multi-media learning, a positive learning environment, focused lessons addressing relevant concepts, and learning materials providing assistance with integration of materials. The most striking feature of the Family Bridges Workshop was the empirical research foundation underlying the specific content of the four day educational program. The lessons and materials were drawn from universally accepted research in social, cognitive, and child developmental psychology, sociology, and social neuroscience.”
Outcome Research and Experience
The Family Bridges workshop has helped families with alienated children throughout the U.S. and other countries for the past 23 years. When courts order families to see a therapist, counselor, or parenting coordinator, usually the court has little or no information documenting the effectiveness of the intervention. In contrast, the outcome of Family Bridges has been evaluated and published in a peer-review, refereed professional journal, and is the subject of ongoing research.
Most of the children who attend Family Bridges have led custody evaluators, parents, and the court to expect no cooperation when it comes to accepting placement with the rejected parent. All the children have had failed experiences with counseling prior to enrollment. Some have threatened to act out, insist that they will not comply with court orders, and act as though they are above the law. Nevertheless, in line with Clawar & Rivlin’s observations, when the court issues its orders, most of the threats give way to muted disappointment in the court and anxiety about the future.
Although at first children are overtly unhappy with the court orders, the workshop beings with videos that are immediately engaging, entertaining, and nonthreatening, and the children settle down to the task of learning how to live as a family with the parent whom they have been rejecting. Early in the workshop, usually during the first day, the children begin communicating directly and somewhat positively with the rejected parent and appear relieved to be offered a face-saving way to reconnect. In a study of a sample of 23 children who participated in the workshop, 22 restored a positive relationship with the rejected parent by the workshop’s
conclusion. At follow-up, 18 of the 22 children maintained their gains; those who relapsed had premature contact with the alienating parent.
A study of a larger sample is in progress analyzing data on 88 children who enrolled in the Family Bridges workshop. Thirty-nine of the 88 participants were 14 or older; 26 were 12-13 years old. There were 55 boys and 33 girls. Nearly half of the group of rejected parents are mothers. The preliminary results parallel those found with the smaller sample.
At the workshop’s conclusion, 95% of the child participants recovered a positive relationship with the rejected parent. Most of these children previously frustrated the court-ordered parenting plan and threatened to continue to do so if the court did not endorse their stated preferences. With the help of the four-day workshop they were able to accomplish the goal of adjusting to the transition put in place by the court orders. They complied with the court’s custody decision, and were prepared to return home with their formerly rejected parent, live with that parent safely and in relative harmony, manage conflicts with newly learned skills, and avoid any of the dangerous and noncompliant behavior that they previously threatened. On follow-up, 83% of the sample enjoyed good relationships with the parents they had formerly rejected. The most prevalent factor associated with a child’s relapse into rejecting the parent was the child’s premature contact (usually clandestine and in violation of the court orders) with the other parent whose negative influence was formidable and rendered the child unable to resist.
The impact of Family Bridges workshops continues to be studied using independent and multi-measure pre- and post-workshop assessments of parent-child relationships. Follow-up studies compare changes in children who participated in Family Bridges with alienated children who did not participate. These studies are eliciting data that help understand how participants view specific aspects and components of the workshop as well as the overall experience. The workshop’s impact on children’s attitudes and behavior is assessed through observations and ratings by clinicians, parents, and children. Preliminary review of anonymous ratings by parents and children give the program high marks. The children acknowledge that when they first learned of the workshop they felt very negative about having to attend, but that upon its completion their attitudes about the experience are positive and they believe that other families in similar situations would benefit from the program. Their ratings indicate that the workshop successfully accomplished its goals and most experienced it as an educational program in contrast with their previous experiences in counseling. The children report that the workshop leaders treated them with respect and kindness.
An example is one young man who looked back on his experiences with Family Bridges. He said that throughout the litigation when he was insisting to the custody evaluator and the guardian ad litem that he hated his mother and never wanted to see her again, he never expected the court to take him seriously. He is grateful that the court did not appease his demands and that the court protected him from the tragic loss of his mother and his extended family.
Fees and Admissions Procedures
Each family accepted into Family Bridges is admitted after a review of the individual circumstances in the family. In most cases the family has undergone a comprehensive child custody evaluation (in some jurisdictions this is called a custody and access assessment or a parenting responsibility evaluation). A custody evaluation report is not always required. But the workshop is suitable only for children whose response to the rejected parent is not a proportional reaction to that parent’s behavior and personality, and for rejected parents who are capable of managing the responsibilities of caring for and supervising the children.
Parents and professionals (for instance, evaluators, attorneys, or therapists) who want to learn more about Family Bridges and other interventions for families with alienated children may email Dr. Warshak. He no longer conducts interventions with alienated children, but Dr. Warshak can direct interested parties to various resources, including professionals who offer Family Bridges workshops.
Following the conclusion of the workshop, the team leaders are available to take calls from the parent or child regarding any questions or to receive assistance in applying what they have learned. Usually, prior to beginning the workshop, one or more local professionals are designated to provide aftercare and support to the family as needed. This local professional facilitates and/or monitors the situation and provides feedback as necessary and as ordered by the Court. In most cases the local professional is a mental health professional that either has prior experience with the family, is recommended by a Court-appointed custody evaluator, parent coordinator, or child’s legal representative, or is appointed by the Court. When an aftercare professional has been designated, one team member works with that professional to provide information about the child’s experience in the workshop and to facilitate the coordination of the professional’s work with the learning that took place at Family Bridges.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I enroll with my children in Family Bridges?
For information about participating in Family Bridges or other programs for families with alienated children, email Dr. Warshak. He will direct interested parties to professionals who offer various interventions.
Where is Family Bridges conducted?
The workshops are offered at various locations, usually at a vacation resort facility that allows the family plenty of opportunities for recreation and enjoyable interactions. In a few select cases the team leaders travel to the family’s city to conduct the workshop in the relaxed setting of their home. In other cases the family travels to another city and combines the program with a brief vacation at the conclusion of the workshop. Two independent practitioners co-lead the workshop on an ad hoc basis at a suitable location. Family Bridges is an educational service the co-leaders provide. There is no Family Bridges Center or Family Bridges facility.
When is Family Bridges conducted?
Each workshop is arranged privately for the family and is scheduled on an individual basis to coordinate with the availability of workshop leaders and the needs of the family. The workshop is usually scheduled close to the date on which a court issues orders regarding the children's living arrangements.
Are Families ordered by the court to participate in Family Bridges?
In some cases the court will order that a rejected parent participate with the children in a Family Bridges workshop. In other cases the court will grant the rejected parent sole authority to pursue whatever remedy he or she deems necessary and/or appropriate, including, but not limited to, Family Bridges. Divorce decrees and court orders determine who has the authority to make educational and health care decisions for children. If a parent has the sole authority to make such decisions, and does not need to consult with or obtain the approval of the other parent, a parent can choose to enroll a child in Family Bridges just as the parent with such authority can enroll a child in different types of educational experiences, tutoring, counseling, medical treatment, etc. In some particularly volatile situations, where concerns are raised about one parent interfering with the custodial parent's right to enroll the child in Family Bridges, such as by unlawfully retaining a child, it may help for the court to take judicial recognition of a parent's exploration of, or intent to have the child participate in, Family Bridges. Workshop leaders do not accept referrals of parents who have been ordered to participate against their will. Parents may decide to enroll a child in the program without first obtaining a minor child's consent (just as children are enrolled in special schools, programs, and mental health treatment), but the parent must seek our assistance voluntarily.
Is Family Bridges therapy or counseling?
No. Almost every workshop participant comes to the program with a history of failed attempts at counseling. Instead the workshop provides an educational experience based on scientifically established concepts and procedures.
Are professionals who offer the Family Bridges workshop formally affiliated in a group practice?
No. Leaders of the Family Bridges workshop have been trained to conduct the workshop and those without such training cannot label their interventions as Family Bridges. Professionals who conduct the Family Bridges workshop join together on an ad hoc basis for each workshop, but they are not affiliated with each other in their independent practices.
Does a family go through Family Bridges alone, or is the program conducted for a group of families?
To date Family Bridges workshop are offered to one family at a time. This allows the workshop leaders to tailor the program to the individual needs and circumstances of the family. Family Bridges workshop leaders are open to exploring the option of conducting a multi-family workshop if the opportunity presents itself and appears to be potentially beneficial to all participants.
Do all siblings participate in Family Bridges, or just those who are severely alienated?
Usually all siblings will benefit from participation in the workshop. Parents will need to make arrangements for the care of children who are too young to benefit from all phases of the program.
Who pays for Family Bridges?
Family Bridges is a fee-for-service program paid for by the parent who participates in the workshop. Workshop leaders do not accept cases in which the court orders a non-participating parent to pay for the workshop provided to the other parent and children.
In the future perhaps scholarships will be available for families that cannot afford the program, but these are not currently available.
In cases involving returning abducted children, other agencies may provide funding to assist families with the reunification process.
Does Family Bridges separate children from one of their parents?
No. Family Bridges workshop leaders have no authority to determine how much contact children have with each of their parents. Many of the families with children under 18 with whom we work are subject to court orders regarding parent-child access and contact. In many of these cases the court has determined that, despite the children’s stated wishes and demands, it is in the children’s best interests to temporarily suspend their contact with one parent. In such cases, the court’s order temporarily separates children from a parent. In some of these cases the children and their parents need help to adjust to the changes brought about by the court orders. Family Bridges is one intervention that provides such help and support for reunification between children and a parent whom they have rejected in the past. Although Family Bridges workshop leaders work with children whom the court has separated from a parent, it is the court, not the workshop leaders, who make this determination.
Are children isolated when participating in a Family Bridges workshop?
No. To the contrary, rather than isolate children, all siblings and their parent participate together in the workshop. In addition, each late afternoon and evening following the day’s workshop activities, parents and children (without the workshop leaders) engage together in enjoyable recreational activities away from the workshop site, such as visiting nearby malls, attending movies, hiking, etc.
Do most children choose to attend a Family Bridges workshop?
Adult children who attend the Family Bridges workshop choose to participate. Some children younger than 18 years old choose to participate. Others comply with a parent’s expectation when the Court Orders give that parent the legal authority to make such a decision. In some cases the court takes judicial notice that the parent intends to enroll the children in the workshop, and in other cases the Court Orders explicitly require the parent and children to participate in the workshop. In this respect, children’s enrollment in a Family Bridges workshop is similar to their enrollment in other educational and therapeutic experiences in which children may not voluntarily choose to participate, such as when a court or parents expect children to participate in psychotherapy and counseling, admit children with drug-abuse problems to a drug rehabilitation program, admit children with mental health problems to a residential treatment center or hospital, or enroll children in a boarding school, military academy, or other private school against the children’s stated wishes.
Are children “deprogrammed” in Family Bridges?
No. The term “deprogramming” is a misnomer when applied to Family Bridges. The term deprogramming was originally used in reference to work with cult victims and came to evoke images of abducting, forcibly restraining, and isolating cult members while wearing them down with lectures in a process that could be described as a form of brainwashing. By contrast, although a parent may insist that a child be enrolled in Family Bridges, at the outset of the workshop leaders explain to children that they are free to withdraw their participation at any time.
Most children whose behavior is inappropriate do not choose to enroll in special schools, special programs, and mental health treatment. Caring adults make the decision for them. Similarly, alienated children do not generally regard their alienated behavior as something that they need to change. Adults who have the authority to make such decisions for the children enroll them in Family Bridges. But, once the children begin Family Bridges they make the choice about whether to continue to participate. Workshop leaders do not restrain children in any manner, and the leaders make it clear to the children that this is not the role of the workshop leader.
Throughout the workshop, the leaders repeatedly solicit feedback from the participants, answer questions, correct misimpressions, reinforce the participants’ prerogative to have their own opinions after each presentation, and ask the participants whether the workshop is meeting their goals and expectations. As opposed to brainwashing, which fosters the suspension of critical thinking and inculcates distortions of reality, the workshop teaches children to think critically and to correct distorted perceptions. Children receive information commonly presented in Psychology and Sociology classes and it is left to the participants to decide if and how they want to apply what they have learned.
How do children experience Family Bridges?
Many children arrive at the workshop anxious, angry, and confused. Most have felt empowered to dictate the nature of their relationships with their parents and are stunned that the court has overturned the status quo. By the end of the first day, the participants are usually relaxed and in an upbeat mood. They are relieved that the process is easier than anticipated and the parents often are overjoyed at having contact and regaining some semblance of a relationship with a once lost child. Children usually are relieved when they learn that they can restore a relationship with the rejected parent without forgoing their relationship with the other parent. They reveal that they have all along preferred to keep both parents in their lives. Also, they are relieved when they can save face by not having to rehash all the bad moments and painful scenes in order to reconcile.
For the most part, the program is entertaining, benign, non-confrontational, and presented in a manner that respects children’s emotional needs and capacities. Other than the initial requirement to participate in the program, children do not feel and are not coerced. Children are given a great deal of latitude in regulating the pace of the program, the emotional intensity of the discussions, and the frequency and duration of breaks. As opposed to pressure the children might have felt in the past to think a certain way about the rejected parent, this program teaches children to correct distortions of reality and a premium is placed on the exercise, rather than the suspension, of critical thinking. The children appreciate that the goal of the intervention is to foster children’s positive relationships with rejected parents, not to damage children’s relationship with favored parents. Also, children appreciate that a goal of the intervention is for children to develop balanced, realistic and compassionate views of both parents rather than polarized views in which one parent is considered all good and the other is considered all bad.
By the end of the program, children are grateful for the experience and the workshop facilitators’ help. Nearly all the children express a strong desire for the other parent to go through the same program and to learn how to keep the child out of the middle of parental disputes.
Participants’ Comments About Family Bridges
Two days following the completion of the workshop, a formerly alienated father wrote: “Today was a wonderful day. All the kids interacted well with me and had a lot of fun. It was almost as though they had never been alienated. [Children’s names redacted] call me ‘dad’ very naturally now. [Child’s name redacted] uses it occasionally. [Child’s name redacted] told me several times ‘this is the best day of my life!!’” Just prior to the workshop this child was terrified of her father and had been alienated for close to two years.
“If it were not for the Family Bridges workshop we would never be where we are now. The unimaginable horror and chaos would not have ended. Now things are going really well with the kids. My son (15 years old) has become more involved in school. He has been talking so much about all his thoughts and feelings about what has happened these last few years. He has talked about how he felt so compelled to agree with his dad. As a family, we can lead a normal life. Things are relaxed, with nothing more than the normal ups and downs of daily life.
“The children’s lawyer said in court that she sees no more signs of depression and sadness in my son, and that there has seen a 180 degree shift in the children’s attitudes towards most things. Both children are now saying kind things about me. Life feels so good and normal right now, that at times I can almost forget the horrors that we all had to endure.” ~ Formerly alienated mother of two teens
"It has been one year since we were awarded custody of the children. It has been a phenomenal year… so full of blessings. The children have adjusted so well, have made terrific friends, and have excelled in school. We are a family. Thank you again for all you did for us through Family Bridges. This has been a remarkable and blessed journey. We are so grateful." ~ A Grateful Mother
"Today my son is a normal teenager in every sense of the word. His anger and defiance have been replaced by respect and a real caring for others, especially his sister. He is focused on his studies and is doing very well. His sister, as well, has grown in her self confidence and is much more talkative and smiling. We also had the opportunity to travel during the summer and spend time with family and cousins. Slowly, they are making connections and experiencing positive relationships without the fear of being judged or criticized. The positive changes in them are apparent to everyone.
"I would like to convey to you my gratitude for helping them at a most crucial time in their lives. It is difficult for me to express in words what you did for my children through the Family Bridges workshop. For that, I will remain forever indebted to you." ~ A Grateful Parent
"I really hope Richard and Randy understand how much this changed my life. It was like someone un-docked a speedboat from the harbor. I'm honestly still at a loss for words as to how caught up I was in this 'selective attention' nonsense." ~ A young man who participated in Family Bridges when he was 19 years old made this comment nine years after the workshop.
“It was an educational program consisting of no apparent purpose other than the delivery of information and the children could do with it what they pleased. By Day Two both sons asked if their dad could participate in the intervention. The above is in striking contrast to the tone of the year of family therapy we engaged in. I believe the family therapy did more harm than good in our case.”
“By the end of the three-and-a-half days, my sons and I had reconnected. The intervention gave us a method of communicating that enabled us to move beyond the effects of the divorce. For the first time in years, I felt I could have a normal conversation with my sons. As hot topics or loaded dynamics emerged over the subsequent days and months, one or both sons would reference a relevant piece of information acquired during the intervention.”
“We were immersed in watching a series of short documentary-like movies, slide presentations, without any lecturing or discussion about the marital breakdown, conduct of my former husband or me, or [child]’s wishes. Instead, the focus was upon that which we were viewing, with a message emerging that maybe things weren’t what they appeared to be and with my sense that this process was inviting [child] to engage in independent, rather than reflexive-like thinking. On the second day, [child] hugged me. He hadn’t done that for 2 years. At the end, he told me he loved me. He hadn’t expressed anything like that since the conflict arose. He appeared relieved. He can now demonstrate affection. Most remarkably, he can now open up and talk to others and me about his father and he can refer to “mom” and “dad” in one sentence which he could never do before. He can speak to me about the good things that each of us gives to him, which he could never do before. He can now move between both homes. It is quite incredible when I think of where he was before [Family Bridges]. I don’t know quite what I would have done were it not for the good fortune of the opportunity of [Family Bridges’ team leaders] to work with us.”