Children Who Refuse to Visit – Part I of II

Your divorce is finally over, a parenting time schedule is in place, and now you are looking forward to building your relationship with your child in an environment that does not include your former spouse. Parenting time is going along fine: your ex spouse is abiding by the parenting time schedule and your child is following an age-appropriate routine in your home. Once in a while, your spouse asks to have the child on your parenting time. You think, “Sure, if I am flexible, she will be, too.” She is somewhat flexible at first, but less so as time progresses. Occasionally, she signs up the child for an activity that occurs on your parenting time. You are annoyed, but you agree to take the child to the activity. After all, your child wants to go and you want to support your child. And you don’t want to fight any more with your ex-spouse.

When both parents are psychologically healthy, this type of flexibility is fantastic. But when a parent has had significant trouble letting go of the children (as evidenced, for example, by protracted custody and parenting time negotiations and litigation) and when including you in decisions about the children has been historically inconsistent, flexibility can be a precursor to trouble. If the infringements on your time and role as joint decision-maker start becoming more frequent and serious, particularly as your child approaches her teenage years, you could be starting down a slippery slope toward child alienation.

What are signs that your relationship with your child is at risk? Your child might start asking you if she can go with her other parent on trips during your holiday breaks. She might make silly excuses for not wanting to come over to your house, even after you promise to change whatever she is complaining about. Your former spouse may be luring your child with unusual gifts or maintaining a household with few if any rules. And you might start hearing bizarre allegations that you did terrible things in the past that never happened.

You reach out to your former spouse to say you expect your parenting time to be enforced by her and are told a teenager can’t be forced to do anything and if she wants to go to your house, she is more than welcome to do it. But your spouse does nothing to enforce parenting time except to pay it lip service. “I told her she has to go but I can’t make her.”

You talk to a lawyer and the lawyer tells you not to worry, the child will come around once she is more mature. That sounds like a viable option since taking the issue to court will be expensive and appears hopeless: How DO you make a teenager do something they don’t want to do?

As your parenting time dwindles to something more like “visits,” you talk to a therapist and the therapist tells you this is very serious. It could lead not only to a lifetime of being alienated from your daughter if you don’t fix it immediately, but your daughter could end up with long-term psychological issues. You and your child start therapy with your ex spouse’s agreement (or a court order). In therapy, your spouse comes up with even more false allegations against you, many of which are allegations your former spouse made against you during your divorce. Now your child paints your ex spouse as a victim and is “taking her side.” She may even say she will run away if she has to go to your house, and she doesn’t even care if you die, or worse yet, she will kill herself if she has to spend time with you. You are shocked, devastated and angry.

How could this happen and why can’t the judicial system fix it? It happens because your former spouse may have a mental illness that is difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. Recently, a judge tried to “fix” a situation where children refused to visit by telling the children they could spend time in a juvenile detention facility until they were ready to have a meal with their father. There was national media backlash that may dissuade judges from trying to ever do anything about this problem again. If your situation is so far gone your child is flat-out refusing to visit or talk with you (maybe even asking to change her last name to remove any reference to you from her identity), you may want to get some very good grief counseling and figure out how to move on with your life, because you may never restore your relationship with your child.

If it is not too late and you still have a relationship with your child, educate yourself on child alienation. Books by Richard Warshak and Amy Baker are good. Find a lawyer who is experienced in child alienation and ask for quick intervention. Explain to the Court if this continues, your child (no matter how well they appear to be doing at school) may end up with lower self-esteem, lower life satisfaction, lower quality of friends, lower satisfaction with friendships, greater distress, greater romantic relationship problems and ongoing troubled ruminations about their parents as well as impaired functioning in cognitive, emotional and behavioral domains*. Filing a motion asking the Judge for help could include requests to:*

  • Require the favored parent to read books and undergo counseling to learn how to avoid behaviors leading to children who do not want to visit (and require the parent to report back what he/she learned);
  • Put the favored parent on notice that if the child’s relationship with the other parent continues to deteriorate, and the court finds that the aligned parent’s behavior is largely responsible for the problem, the court will entertain options that provide more time for the child to be in the care of the alienated parent;
  • Require supervision or monitoring of the child’s contacts with the alienating parent;
  • Temporarily change custody of the child while the non-favored parent and child attend intensive counseling and restore their relationship while the favored parent is enjoined from contacting the child;
  • Send the child to a workshop such as Family Bridges (4 days) where a child learns about the process by which they have become alienated and how to engage in a face-saving way to recover affection for both parents.

In conclusion, know that you are not alone. The problem of children who refuse to visit is ubiquitous. Hopefully, with more education, society will eventually do a better job of extinguishing it. If this problem has affected you, or someone you love, speak up about it. As with domestic violence, silent suffering allows the problem to fester and tear at the fabric of our society.

Read Part II here.

* Richard Warshak, “Ten Parental Alienation Fallacies that Compromise Decisions in Court and in Therapy.” © American Psychological Association.