“Do I have to go?” All parents hear this from their kids about not wanting to go somewhere from time to time. But during and after divorce, hearing this from your kids about spending time with the other parent causes concern for both parents.
In conflictual divorces kids learn that the gap in parental expectations may widen. At some point, the child either aligns with the parent that holds the most power, or will find power in protecting a parent. With one parent the kids learned how to behave and with the other parent they learn how to behave. Sometimes these expectations clash.
There are endless reasons to resist visitation that kids learn are effective. Maybe one will act “insulted” that he has to visit. Or maybe another will complain that “It’s boring.” The parent hearing these complaints may sympathize with their child, which reinforces the refusal. For sure, parents do not want their kids to not like them. It would be easier to think of excuses for not having to go, or provide a number of suggestions for dealing with how hard it is to be over at the other parent’s house. Kids also do not want to face the parent they are disappointing, so avoidance becomes preferred. The other parent pursues compliance by guilt and make statements like, “I’m your dad. How could you do this to your dad?” Or, “Look at all the things I’ve done for you.” Maybe “Remember these pictures? Remember all the good times we had?” Another factor reinforcing resistance may be the local family counselor or therapist who does a great job listening and validating the child’s point of view. The kids develop a script to be used with both parents and the therapist, and practice makes perfect, inadvertently reinforcing the refusal.
How often does this happen? Probably more than is reported, but studies show that 11-15% reject or resist contact with one parent while remaining aligned with the other parent (Johnston, 1993, 2003; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005b; Racusin & Copans 1994; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). In custody-disputing samples 20% reject a parent, and 6% are extreme examples like the one listed above (Kopetski, 1998a, 1998b; Johnston 1993, 2003; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005c). Boys and girls both refuse equally, and adolescents are more likely than younger children (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). Both moms and dads experience resistance.
Research is also clear that children of divorce generally do better with good relationship with both parents (Kelly 2007). In retrospect, adult children wished they had spent more time with non-custodial parent (Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Finley & Schwartz 2007; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000). Both parents together are proven to play an important role in child development and adjustment (Parke, 2004; Schwartz & Finley, 2009).
One’s instinct may be to find someone to blame, but there is not a simplistic target. Some want to blame one parent and call it alienation, and some want to blame the other parent and call it estrangement. Usually there are four contributing factors: situational factors, one parent, the other parent, and child factors.
Situational factors are coincidental factors that affect parenting time. For younger kids, separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate for their age. For all kids there are also expected and typical regressive responses to the stress of divorce and separation. Also, mood, behavioral or other psychological disorders in the parent or child affect visitation resistance. Some children unconsciously want to care for a parent. Often, if allowed, kids feel sad for the parent that is alone without a partner. There are other causes at the place of visitation and child may not be aware or able to communicate. For example, maybe someone else who is there is concerning the child. Maybe there are fears, like at night. Or maybe the child does not care for the food, or sleeping arrangements. The child may also miss the other parent, friends or a pet. All situational factors should be explored.
Parental factors are patterned and not an isolated incident. Negative comparison to the other parent, either implied or stated by words, body language or even the parent’s emotions are deciphered by kids that one parent is better than the other parent. Particularly destructive are both obvious criticisms of the other parent to subtle negative attributions.
Often comments are either exaggerations of the other parent’s flaws, or weak rationales that do not reflect a normal range of parenting differences. An example of a weak rationale would be “Your mom is controlling because she makes you brush your teeth after every meal.” Comments about the other parent are usually one-sided, lacking ambivalence or empathy.
An obvious example would be a dad calling Mom “crazy” and the child begins to not respect her. Another example would be a mom justifying statements about her “daughter’s father” because “She needs to know what her father is really like.” Or perhaps, a child innocently or purposely is able to “overhear” Mom or Dad’s conversation with someone else.
On the other side of the coin is the parent who contributes to the problem anywhere from making common parenting mistakes to estrangement through domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. Some parents are strict or demanding, especially compared to the other parent. Some parents are more sensitive and responsive to needs. One mistake made by a parent of a child refusing visitation is to “give the child space.” This method becomes self-perpetuating. Another accusation by a parent is that their child has been “brainwashed.” This occurs even in the case where the child witnessed domestic violence; the parent may still believe the child’s statements were inculcated by the other parent. Even in the case where the child has been coached, pitting the parent’s perceptions against the child’s experience discounts the point of view and individuality of the child, thus reinforcing the influence of the competing parent.
“It is easy to see how toxic parents can become in their ability to serve as a secure base or a haven of safety when they get so preoccupied with their own needs, pride, shame, or selfishness, or their anger at the other parent over betrayal or humiliation. How can I comfort my child when I myself am frightened? How can I tolerate my child having successes under your supervision if it is all about me, not about them?” (Everett Waters). It is difficult to be fully aware of what is going on in your child’s head when you are so stressed and burdened in the aftermath of divorce.
Child factors include thinking errors that make the child susceptible to influence. Thinking errors include dichotomous (black and white) thinking about past events that lead to overgeneralization in predicting the future. Essentially, the child without realizing it rejects the positive aspects about his or her experiences with the other parent and is more likely to jump to negative conclusions. Emotional reasoning is concluding that negative feelings mean the parent is to blame and feed fears leading to catastrophic thinking. The signs in the child have been identified by research. Again, these are patterns and not isolated incidents.
The child practices a critical stance until it becomes dogmatic. Rationales over time become weaker. For example, one reason a child wanted to live with Dad is that he has more trees in his yard. Borrowed scenarios become needed to justify the child’s stance so events he or she has heard about become evidence against a parent. If the child hears that a parent is an “alcoholic,” then when the child sees the parent with a drink, the evidence mounts against them. A marked quality of the rationales against a parent is the lack of ambivalence and empathy for the parent. The positive aspects of the parent are not seen. A child becomes defensive of his or her statements. In one instance, when asked about a picture of a child and her father at the park, the child commented, “I was just pretending to enjoy myself with you.” The child develops a clear alignment with one parent. Can you imagine a child say, “He buys me too many toys. He’s just trying to spoil me.” Visitation refusal spreads from one parent to family members of the parent. True to form, the child denies hope for reconciliation.
The effect on the child is the development of a phobic response, anticipatory anxiety, and avoidance. Research documents the effect of high conflict between parents lead to self-blame or over-inflated self-esteem leading to future relationship problems, depression, suicide, self-harm, anxiety, behavioral problems, academic and learning problems, substance use, lower career attainment, and future resentment of both parents.
Asking Mom, “Do I have to go to Dad’s tonight?” leads to a connection with Mom. A child may feel she already lost one parent in the divorce; she does not want to lose the connection to the other. Moreover, a child refusing visitation confirms what the parent believes about the other parent. Child and parent mutually reinforce the need for protection, concern, and approval. The child’s attitude and behavior becomes a test of loyalty and then it becomes impossible to love both parents. Visitation refusal and supervised visitation reinforces belief that it is justified.
Overcoming the barriers to visitation is formidable. The younger the child the easier it is. Infants to two years old can be fussy, have difficult temperaments and have developmentally appropriate separation anxiety. Experts recommend shorter, but more frequent visits along with education on parenting and co-parent communication. Keeping log books to be exchanged between parents can allay some fears that the child is properly cared for. Eating, sleeping, elimination, play and child care routines can be documented by both parents for effective co-parenting. Recruiting trusted family members to observe a parent’s care can also increase trust.
Age two to six can be described as fickle. When my youngest was three he would say he was full at a restaurant until we left, and then he would promptly announce he is hungry. Kids this age are easily influenced, which can be both positive and negative. They have an insufficient understanding of the concept of time, so stability and continuity means a predictable schedule. Stability and continuity does not mean spending nearly all the time at one parent’s house over the other. Two to three weeks of short daily visits can be scheduled to prepare for a normal schedule. If the parents cannot work together without tension, separation anxiety can be alleviated by the “drop and dash,” where one parent assures the child the he or she will be back, that Dad or Mom will take care of the child, say “goodbye,” and then leave to not prolong or reinforce the anxiety. Or, another family member or friend drop off. Transitional objects like familiar toys or pictures can also be used to reduce anxiety.
For older kids the “drop and dash” may not work. In addition, oppositional and defiant behavior may be more difficult to address for fear that kids will exaggerate the discipline used by the other parent. At this age it becomes more crucial that both parents must insist on parenting time. For teens that “know more” than parents, busy is normal. Offer flexible time, some non-negotiable time and some negotiable time.
Dr. Peter J. Favaro, an expert on custody, writes, “Often the most insidious kind of visitation interference comes from parents who claim, ‘I tell him he can spend as much time as he wants with his (mother or father), but that it is his decision and I respect his decisions because he is a mature child. If my (ex-husband/ex-wife) is not skillful enough to provide an environment that my child wants to visit I really don’t see that as my problem. They are going to have to work that out between themselves.’ Those who cannot see the absolute destructiveness of statements such as these are usually lost causes.” Kids then conclude that a relationship with the other parent is not important. After all, they do not have to do it, unlike going to school, homework, chores, eating your vegetables, going to the dentist, etc.
Interventions are listed here from most expensive to least. A guardian ad litem and custody evaluators can assess the capacity of each parent to prepare and promote parenting time. Parenting coordination provides education, mediation and arbitration. Family Restructuring Therapy teaches co-parents how to cooperate in the best interest of the children. Reunification Therapy bolsters a new relationship between parent and child. Mediation can be used to develop parenting plans. Co-parenting education is widely available, even online. Many helpful resources such as checklists, online tools, and a very low cost online basic parenting education course are available for download or review on Dr. Favaro’s website. The least expensive and least time-consuming option may be refused: “Removal of privileges and a clear show of support for visitation with the visiting parent can often completely eliminate visitation refusal problems” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D.). Most kids know that if a parent means what they say, they will have consequences.
Supervised visits, which may be necessary, may mean to the child or parent that the supervised parent is bad and confirm parent’s and child’s fears. The transition to supervised visits is interesting, because it can encourage the child play it up versus act naturally. On the positive side, supervised visitation can also be used to jump-start a stalled relationship if the supervisor is friendly and the environment is conducive to building a positive relationship. Children who refuse to go in the room with the other parent while one parent is consoling, over time become comfortable and feel less of a need to show ambivalence. Dr Favaro adds, “Research performed in my office indicates that the easiest way to achieve reconciliation with a child who does not want to visit is to make small talk, and not talk about the ‘family situation.'”