Divorce and custody disputes are stressful for all family member. Children, especially, may feel like they have no control over the rapid changes happening around them. As a result, they may be reluctant—or even refuse—to visit the noncustodial parent. There are many reasons why a child may not want to exercise parenting time. If this is happening, it is very likely that the child is rejecting one parent for a combination of many situational factors.
1. The child may have an affinity for one parent over the other.
Prior to the divorce or custody dispute, the child may have already had a preferred parent, and the subsequent dispute only exacerbated the situation. For example, the child may have more shared interests with one parent than the other. Alternatively, the child may have previously spent more time in the care of one parent than the other. So, if, prior to the dispute, one parent stayed at home to care for the child while the other parent worked, the child may be more comfortable staying with the parent she is already accustomed to caring for her. She may not be accustomed to spending time one-on-one with the other parent, and, as a result, does not wish to spend time with that parent now.
In these situations, the solution could be a parenting time schedule with a “Step Up” plan. This focuses on giving the child time to gradually become more comfortable with exercising parenting time with the currently-rejected parent.
2. The child has sided with one parent over the other.
In situations where the child is old enough to have some understanding of the dispute, the child may side with one parent over the other, and, therefore, rejects the other parent. Commonly, this occurs when parents divorce due to infidelity, and the child is angry with the parent who had an extramarital affair. Therefore, he sides with the other parent and does not wish to see the unfaithful parent.
Like the first scenario, a Step Up parenting plan can be a solution to allow the child time to become comfortable with the currently-rejected parent. Additionally, both parents may benefit from Co-Parent education and conflict resolution classes.
3. The child has suffered abuse, neglect, or poor parenting from one parent.
A child who has been estranged from a parent or has a justified reason to reject a parent may not want to exercise parenting time with that parent due to past abuse and neglect. In these situations, the child’s safety is the most important factor to the courts and to the experts involved in the case. In these situations, the child’s trauma is treated first. Meanwhile, the offending parent undergoes treatment, education, and/or coaching.
After this process has begun, the offending parent may begin to receive supervised parenting time. Over time, as the parent-child relationship slowly begins to be repaired, parenting time may increase and, eventually, become unsupervised.
In these situations, Parenting Coordinators and Family Therapists may assist in the treatment plan.
4. The child has been alienated from the noncustodial parent by the custodial parent.
An alienated child is one who holds unreasonable negative beliefs about a parent that are disproportionate to the child’s experiences with the parent, and these negative beliefs and reactions stem from the child’s other parent. These children are, normally, actively hostile toward a parent without a justifiable reason.
Historically, rejected parents have been quick to claim that their child’s other parent has poisoned their child against them. In fact, it is common for disputing parents to attempt to—explicitly or implicitly—alienate their children from the other parent. However, truly alienated children are relatively rare, and, of those children, all say they have multiple reasons for rejecting that parent.
The first step in dealing with an alienated child is making sure they are actually alienated. If the child has experienced past abuse from the rejected parent, the child’s reaction may be justified, and the protective measures mentioned above may need to be put in place. Similarly, it is important to determine that the child does not have any developmental or other understandable reasons for his hostility toward the rejected parent. In some cases, what looks like an alienated child might just be a child who is having trouble adjusting to a new situation; age and mental development can play a role in this issue. Finally, there needs to be evidence present that the other parent is actively trying to undermine the relationship between the child and the rejected parent.
If the child has truly been alienated, there are a number of potential solutions. Generally, the least intensive interventions are utilized first; if those fail, more intensive interventions are employed.
In alienation interventions, the emotional and developmental harm to the child by staying in a severely alienated environment is weighed against the stress and risk of moving the child into the custody of the currently-rejected parent. While some cases may call for the child to be removed from the current custodial parent to get the child away from the alienating parent, other situations might require the rejected parent to suspend her parenting time. Alienation can begin to resolve on its own as the child matures. Therefore, even though the child currently might be too alienated to interact with the rejected parent, the child could become more open to interacting with the rejected parent as the child matures. The child’s opinion should be taken into account when making these determinations.
Because there is a risk that a rejected parent may have to temporarily suspend parenting time, early intervention is key. The sooner the rejected parent discovers her child is being alienated from her, the more successful an intervention is likely to be. Many of these interventions require court involvement. For example, in addition to the remedies mentioned above, courts can order family therapy, which includes intensive therapy sessions where the entire family participates. The therapist reports the family’s progress to the court, and the court then takes that report and determines whether parenting time and/or custody should be changed. However, as useful as family therapists can be, there are not very many of them, and some family members may not want to participate in family therapy.
The Bottom Line:
If your child is rejecting or resisting parenting time, it is likely due to a combination of factors. Divorce and custody disputes are stressful, and the child might be confused and upset about all of the changes happening around him. If the child is refusing to participate in parenting time, it is important to acknowledge and to try to fix the problem as soon as possible—early intervention is key. In more difficult situations, family therapy is a viable option.
Information adapted from:
Julie Kunce Field, Getting REAL About Parental Alienation: A View from the Bench(Oct. 2, 2018).
Julie Kunce Field et al., Children Who Resist Contact with a Parent: Why do they do that and what can be done?(Oct. 2, 2018).