The Family Bridges workshop has helped families with alienated children throughout the U.S. and other countries since 1991. 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 peer-reviewed professional journals , and is the subject of ongoing research.
A 2019 study reported data on eighty-three children who completed a Family Bridges workshop with their rejected parent after court orders placed them with that parent (39% mothers, 61% fathers). The children had rejected the parent for an average of three to four years. At the outset most of the children thought they would not like the workshop. But 89% felt more positive about the experience by the end of the workshop. All the parent participants rated the workshop as excellent or good.
At the conclusion of the workshop, two-thirds of the children rated the workshop as “good” or “excellent,” 25% rated it as “fair,” and 8% of children retained their initial negative attitudes about the workshop and rated the workshop as “poor.”
Also, 78% of the children rated the experience as positive, 18% “somewhat negative,” and only 4% indicated that they felt “very negative” about the workshop.
Even among the children who did not rate the workshop positively, most rated the workshop leaders positively as treating the children with respect (95%) and kindness (96%). Previously rejected parents were with their children at all times during the workshop and, without exception, every parent rated the workshop leaders as treating their children with “a lot” of kindness.
The main criteria for assessing the workshop’s outcomes were the extent to which the workshop accomplished its two primary goals:
Help children adjust to the transition of living with a parent from whom they are alienated while the children’s contact with their other parent is suspended for an extended period of time. In the past, most of the children resisted fully cooperating with court-ordered parenting time and custody arrangements. A goal of the Family Bridges workshop is to help children cooperate with the court orders and return home to live with the rejected parent who has been awarded custody
Improve the quality of the parent–child relationship. This goal includes restoring a positive parent-–child relationship, and teaching better communication and conflict management skills.
The 2019 study found that compared with their behavior before the workshop, by the end, children were perceived as significantly more willing to cooperate with custody orders.
Before the workshop, the previously rejected parents reported that only 15% of the children cooperated with the orders “a lot” or “moderately.” By the end of the workshop, the percent of perceived cooperation rose to 94% as rated by parents, and 96% as rated by professionals, a statistically significant and large improvement. Concerns about outright defiance are more prevalent with adolescents than with younger children.
Thus, it is noteworthy that more than half of the children in this study were older than fourteen years and nearly a fourth were older than sixteen years.
Although at first children appear unhappy about participating in the workshop, the program begins 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, often 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.
By the end of the workshop the children in the 2019 study were significantly less alienated, as indicated in ratings by the parents, children, and professional workshop leaders. The parents and children credited the workshop as helping to improve their relationship skills and the quality of the parent–child relationship.
Parents and professionals most frequently rated the parent–child relationships as “much better” after the workshop, and children most frequently rated the relationships as “somewhat better.” Combining the “much better” and “somewhat better” ratings, parents rated 99% of the relationships as improved, professionals rated 94% of the relationships as improved, and children rated 74% of the relationships as improved.
The improvement in the children’s relationship with the parent they had been rejecting did not change the children’s feelings about their other parent. In response to a question about whether the workshop changed their feelings and attitudes about their other parent (the one with whom they had been aligned and who did not attend the workshop), a majority of the children checked “not at all,” and only 4% checked “a lot.” This result is open to multiple interpretations, but in view of the gains that most of the children made by the end of the workshop in the relationship with their formerly rejected parent, overall these responses suggest the children overcame their alienation without changing their feelings about their other parent.
The study’s participants had been through multiple failed attempts to remedy their troubled relationship, including prior failed experiences with therapy and with other specialized interventions, such as a summer camp. Most often the custody evaluator, guardian ad litem, and the judge said it was the worst case of parental alienation that they had ever seen.
The outcomes in this sample may not characterize outcomes with other samples, and certainly cannot be generalized to other intensive workshops for alienated children, even those whose descriptions resemble Family Bridges. Also, although the outcome data in this sample revealed a high level of effectiveness, the intervention was not successful with every child. In a previous smaller study with 23 children who were not part of the 2019 study, 4 of the 22 children who restored a positive relationship with their rejected parent subsequently relapsed into rejecting that parent.
The study attributed this relapse to these children’s premature extensive contact with the parent who had fostered their alienation. This finding underscores the importance of court orders that protect children from premature contact with those who might undermine their progress.
In sum, a significant number of intractable and severely alienated children and adolescents who participated in the Family Bridges workshop repaired their damaged relationship with a parent whom they had previously rejected for an average of 3–4 years.
According to Dr. Richard Warshak, “Many questions remain to be explored in order to better understand why Family Bridges has succeeded where other approaches have not. But we should not overlook the fact that some children who claim to hate a parent welcome the chance to reconnect with that parent. 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.”