Family Bridges: A Workshop for
Troubled and Alienated Parent-Child Relationships™
Family Bridges is an innovative educational and experiential program that helps severely and unreasonably alienated children and adolescents adjust to living with a parent they claim to hate or fear.
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, we teach children how to think critically and how to maintain balanced, realistic, and compassionate views of both parents. We also help them develop skills to resist outside pressures that can lead them to act against their judgment-a valuable lesson for teens. We teach parents how to sensitively manage their children's behavior, and we give the family tools to effectively communicate and manage conflicts.
The children and the rejected parent go through Family Bridges together as one family, and not with a group of families. This allows us to 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 we conduct the program in the family home.
The Families We Serve
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
- Children whose alienation is not likely to become severe
- Families in which children who reject a parent 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 thus we usually do not accept these referrals.
In selected cases when the standard enrollment criteria are not met, Family Bridges may be offered to families with irrationally alienated children when we have good reason to believe that the family can benefit from the program. We have had some success providing the program to 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. We offer a modified version of Family Bridges 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, we offer 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
Most of the time, when courts order families to see a therapist, counselor, or parenting coordinator, 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.
Dr. Warshak studied the outcomes of the first 12 families in which he was involved with Family Bridges. The sample was composed of 23 children, 8 of whom were 14 or older. The children had been alienated an average of 28 months. Seven of the rejected parents were mothers, five were fathers.
At the workshop’s conclusion, 22 of 23 children, all of whom had failed experiences with counseling prior to enrollment, restored a positive relationship with the rejected parent. At follow-up, 18 of the 22 children maintained their gains; those who relapsed had premature contact with the alienating parent.
Over a span of 18 years, more than 140 children have participated in Family Bridges. The observations of the team leaders, the children’s expressed attitudes before and after the workshop, and correspondence over the years from grateful parents and children, reveal that in most cases the workshop successfully restored positive relationships between abducted and alienated children and their rejected parent.
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). This does not always require a custody evaluation report. But we do need to be reassured that the children’s response to the rejected parent is not a proportional reaction to that parent’s behavior and personality, and that the rejected parent is capable of managing the responsibilities of caring for and supervising the children.
Parents and professionals (for instance, evaluators, attorneys, or therapists) who want to arrange a consultation to explore the suitability of Family Bridges should email Dr. Warshak for information about fees and the application process.
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 applying to and enrolling in Family Bridges, email Dr. Warshak.
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 some 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.
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. We 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 we provide an educational experience based on scientifically established concepts and procedures.
Does a family go through Family Bridges alone, or is the program conducted for a group of families?
To date Family Bridges works with one family at a time. This allows us to tailor the program to the individual needs and circumstances of the family. If an opportunity presents itself to conduct a multi-family workshop, and we believe that this would benefit all participants, we are open to exploring that option.
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. We 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 we hope to offer scholarships 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.
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, when we meet the children we make it clear 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. We do not restrain children in any manner, and we make it clear to them that this is not our role.
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. Rather than isolate children, we encourage the parent and children to engage in outside activities together in the evenings or at breaks, such as visiting nearby malls, attending movies, hiking, etc. As opposed to brainwashing, which fosters the suspension of critical thinking and inculcates distortions of reality, we teach children to think critically and to correct distorted perceptions. We provide information commonly presented in Psychology and Sociology classes and leave it 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 our 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 the child’s emotional needs and capacities. Other than the initial requirement to participate in the program, the child does not feel and is not coerced. The child is 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 child might have felt in the past to think a certain way about the rejected parent, this program teaches the child to correct distortions of reality and a premium is placed on the exercise, rather than the suspension, of critical thinking. The child appreciates that the goal of the intervention is to foster the child’s positive relationship with the rejected parent, not to damage the child’s relationship with the favored parent. Also, the child appreciates that a goal of the intervention is for the child to develop a balanced, realistic and compassionate view 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
"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
“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.”