After Divorce: When Children Resist Seeing One Parent

child caught in the middleAmid or following divorce or separation, some families face the issue of one or more children refusing to be in contact with one of the parents. While the dynamics of any family experiencing this can be quite complicated, children may behave in this way for a variety of reasons.

Here are some examples (for the purposes of this article, one parent is referred to as the preferred parent, the other the resisted parent):

  • There may be conflict between the parents, and the child does not want to remain caught in the middle.
  • The child may have been closer to one parent than the other when everyone lived together.
  • The child may be in a developmental phase where alignment with one parent over the other is age- and/or gender-related.
  • One parent may be involved with a new partner before the child is ready and/or comfortable with the situation.
  • The preferred parent is more financially secure or otherwise stable than the resisted parent.
  • The child chooses who he or she believes most needs to be taken care of based on the circumstances.
  • There is ongoing litigation (even if the children do not know the details, they often see the effects of the stress).
  • Both the preferred parent and the child believe the resisted parent is not safe.

In these situations, it is often the favored parent’s belief that the resisted parent caused the resistance; meanwhile, the resisted parent often believes that the favored parent is responsible for the child’s refusal to see him or her. While either of these scenarios can certainly be the case, families are complicated systems in which many behaviors and relationships impact what everyone experiences.

There are two important options, which are not mutually exclusive, to consider here: (1) Improve both the favored and resisted parents’ relationships with the child, or (2) improve the co-parenting relationship. As complicated as the family system may be, individual relationships within the system can be addressed. Both parents have responsibility for their part in the family dynamic, including the favored parent.

When children can see their parents having civil and respectful interactions and making it a mutual priority to offer safety, this often leads to a relaxation of the need to push one parent away.

The favored parent may have a difficult time seeing or appreciating how he or she responded when the child did not want to see the other parent. When a child tells you about something negative that happened with the other parent, for example, it can feel natural to sympathize with the child and build a case against or undermine the connection between the child and the resisted parent. This isn’t fair to the other parent or the child. When a child provides negative information, contacting the other parent and asking what he or she knows about it is a good place to start. Secondly, it’s important to help your child understand that he or she can talk to the other parent about it and not have you be his or her voice.

The resisted parent, of course, has an important role to play in the relationship with the child and in behaving in a way that is inviting. Children who resist a parent sometimes feel the expression of affection, for example, as intrusive. It can be expressed, however, without the expectation of reciprocation. This gives the child room to make a choice. It sometimes happens, with time, that the child begins to respond. It is important that the resisted parent let the child know he or she is loved, without conditions.

There are many more ways for both the resisted parent and the preferred parent to alter their behaviors with the goal of improving the relationships between children and parents. The most important is to improve the co-parenting relationship. When children can see their parents having civil and respectful interactions and making it a mutual priority to offer safety, this often leads to a relaxation of the need to push one parent away.

If a child in your family is resistant toward one parent and your co-parenting strategies have been ineffective, contact a therapist in your area for help.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD, therapist in San Ramon, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Hope

    Hope

    July 9th, 2015 at 9:13 AM

    You hope that this will not happen but i unfortunately know of too many parents who only have limited custody who are pretty much rejected by their children, and they don’t even want to go to them even though they only have limited visitation. It can be a very sad and tough situation. It makes you wonder how much you should have to force them to be together if the children do not want it, but you also have to consider that this is the only way to keep the contact together, so what can you do?

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    July 9th, 2015 at 5:20 PM

    I have this exact thing happening to me. I have 50% custody of my children. My two oldest are 13 and 14 and my youngest is 6. My ex only supports my relationship with the 6 year old. He has given them the “choice” whether or not to see me. It is heart breaking. I was there for them everyday of their lives. I love them dearly and I now feel so abandoned and rejected by my own children. I fully sympathize with how they are feeling – it must be close to the same way I feel. My question is the same, should I force them to come see me? My oldest daughter refuses to talk to me or even see me. Its been over a year. My son is now slowing starting to grow apart from me as well. I am at a loss at what to do. Their Dad doesn’t help the situation by giving them the option to see me, and if they do, he tells them that he will come pick them up at any time. Any advice or encouragement is always helpful.

  • Abbie

    Abbie

    July 10th, 2015 at 6:01 AM

    To me it feels like it is all about how the one parent responds to the other. I think that if the parents have been able to maintain a civil relationship with each other after the divorce then the children are going to be better adjusted and will not feel that kind of animosity which can be present with certain families. No matter how much anger there is, this should not be something that the kids have to endure. It is just not good for them.

  • kendra j

    kendra j

    July 11th, 2015 at 11:20 AM

    So what do you do- send the child with the other parent knowing that that will make them unhappy? Or leave them not seeing that parent and not having a relationship with that person? Eventually that is something that would make them unhappy too.

  • W E. Buckley

    W E. Buckley

    July 11th, 2015 at 11:13 PM

    My ex has literally been gone for that majority of her life. She was 2 when I left, after to many months of drugs, cheating, physical (me) & psychological/emotional abuse all of us. I quickly realized what he was capable of. He terrorized me=her too, for yrs, when he wasnt in prison. SHE remembers the police at our home a lot. He’s trying to manipulate her now, like he cld before, she calls him out, but I don’t think she should have to constantly deflect his narcissistic, deceptive manipulation just to have a relationship w/ some man she barely knows. He’s been out a yr & he’s still not honest or accountable, frankly, he has nearly all the personality traits of a sociopath. Shes 10, but smart. How can I encourage that, when she knows, that I know it’s not healthy for her? My priority is her. His is himself. I wouldn’t let her go into the yard of a dog that’s attacked h er r before, that would make me a bad, AND stupid parent. How is this different?

  • Sami

    Sami

    July 13th, 2015 at 9:29 AM

    Perhaps visits with supervision could be an option?

  • Carinne

    Carinne

    July 14th, 2015 at 2:11 PM

    I have seen it a lot where the parent that the kids want to be with the most, they sort of rub it in and make things even worse by parading around that fact. You know, they should want there to be a peaceful relationship between both parents but I think that there are those who sort of revel in it and take it to the full advantage, to usually use it against the other parent.

  • Grace

    Grace

    July 15th, 2015 at 1:34 PM

    Gosh this is a tough call because my instinct as a parent would not be to force them to see a parent that they did not want to be around, but then I out the shoe on the other foot and wonder what I would do if the other parent was me who was begging to see her kids and they did not want me. Wouldn’t I want my ex to make the kids spend time with me?

  • paul

    paul

    July 16th, 2015 at 11:53 AM

    Makes you wish that there never had to be a child going through this bu for most of us this is never going to be a reality.
    I wish that parents would spend a lot more time thinking about what this is doing to our children and at least trying to work it out rather than calling it quits at the drop of a hat.
    Now there are some relationships that probably should end, but I think that there are a lot that when the going gets tough they give up but things still could be salvageable.

  • Meg

    Meg

    July 17th, 2015 at 2:26 PM

    My ex had an affair and that was ultimately what led to our divorce. the kids all know it and they very much hold that against him. He is pretty much the cause of our marriage ending so why should I feel like I have to push the kids to be with him when they do not want to?

  • Indi-Asia

    Indi-Asia

    July 18th, 2015 at 10:06 AM

    I hated it as a kid because I always felt like my mom and dad, they were always trying to turn me against the other one. So I never felt that safe and secure because it always felt like there was this war that was being waged and I was the pawn that got used to strike a blow here and there.

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