When Your Child Refuses to Visit the Other Parent – What do You Do?
When Your Child Refuses to Visit the Other Parent – What Do You Do?
You spent a long time getting your shared parenting plan hammered out so that both you and your ex were satisfied with it.
Or perhaps you had a protracted custody battle that ended in the court making the parenting decision for you.
Either way, there is often some point in their lives that a child may start to resent the visitation schedule and refuse to see the other parent.
What can you do in this situation? Are you supposed to make your child go or should you give in? What are the possible legal consequences? And can older children decide on their own whether or not they want to visit the non-custodial parent?
In this article we will discuss common problems that happen in shared parenting, the possible legal ramifications and some things you can do to make the transition easier on your child.
The Legal Aspects
Although there may be times that you child would rather not visit the other parent, if this visitation is ordered by the court, it is not optional. A shared parenting plan is a legal agreement and must be complied with.
If you are the custodial parent, you are responsible for seeing that your child visits the other parent. If you don’t, you may have to answer the court. Courts tend not to look favorably on parents who limit their child’s time with the other parent, even if it is something that the child himself has requested.
But while the court system has a habit of seeing things in black and white, parents know that situations involving the children of divorce are often more complicated.
What Can You Do if Your Child Won’t Visit the Other Parent?
When a child refuses to visit the other parent, it can cause problems for both parties–including a disruption of a parenting schedule both parents have worked around and adjusted to.
The non-custodial parent may feel betrayed and hurt, and may wonder if the other parent manipulated their child into feeling this way. The custodial parent may be frustrated and worried. Is there something going on in the other house that s/he needs to know about?
Remember That You’re the Adult
Do you let your children skip school whenever they want? Are they allowed to stay up all night playing games on their phone? Can they eat junk food and drink soda whenever they like? Do your children only do their homework when they want to?
Of course not, because as a parent, you sometimes have to make your children do things that they don’t necessarily want to do. This is how children learn responsibility as well as the fact that what they want can’t always come first.
Divorced parents often feel guilty, which can make them fall into the trap of giving in too easily to their children. While it’s important to listen to children and their opinions, you need to remember your children are not in charge. You are. Your children need to know that both parents are an important part of their lives. They don’t get to chose when and if visitation happens.
Tell your children that part of having divorced parents is spending time with each one of them. This means that it’s not fair to your ex or your children–although they may not see it that way–if you don’t make them go along with the visitation order.
Look at Your Own Behavior
Are you bad mouthing your ex in front of your children or where they can overhear you? Do you get visibly upset when your child is getting ready to go to the other parent? After they get home from a weekend visit are you pumping your kids for information about your ex? Do you make them feel guilty for seeing the other parent? Do you make snide remarks about your child’s step siblings or step parent?
This type of behavior is what forces your children to feel that they have to choose sides. No child should be in this position and it is wrong for you to put them there. Sometimes children refuse to go to the other parent because of the reaction of the custodial parent. They don’t want to upset the custodial parent or be made to feel guilty.
You may still harbor bad feelings for your ex, but this person is also the parent of your child. When you say nasty things about your ex or use your child as a go-between, you aren’t getting back at your ex, you’re harming your child. If you have trouble respecting anything else about your former spouse, at least respect the fact that this is your child’s parent and treat them accordingly.
If you want to vent about your ex or are having trouble with your children being gone, talk about it to a friend, join a support group for divorced parents or speak with a counselor. Don’t burden your child with your anger and resentment.
You may want to ask yourself the following questions to see if you are truly behaving in the best interests of your child.
- Do I do my best–no matter how I may really feel–to encourage my children to visit their other parent?
- Do I tell my children that although I miss them, I’m fine when they’re away?
- Do I help my children pack everything they need so that their time with the other parent will run smoothly as possible?
- Do I avoid persistently asking my children for information about the other parent when they come back from visitation?
- Do I make sure to communicate with the other parent directly or through a third party and not use my child as a messenger?
Finding Out Why
If your child refuses to or starts acting out when going to the other parent, you need to speak to him and find out exactly why he doesn’t wish to visit the other parent.
Obviously if there are issues that affect your child’s safety or welfare, then you should speak to your attorney to determine whether or not you need to seek modification of the child custody agreement.
As a parent yourself, you should know that sometimes children become annoyed or dissatisfied with their mother or father in general. While this is not pleasant, it isn’t abnormal and will usually pass.
If your child has complaints about visiting your ex, suggest and encourage that they discuss these complaints with the other parent. Remember that this problem exists between the child and the other parent. Part of having an honest and open relationship between parents and children is working out problems together.
If your child is not able to articulate the complaints face to face, encourage them to try over the phone, by email or even in a handwritten letter. You should do your best not to get involved, but if your child refuses to communicate at all with the other parent, you might have to convey the message for him or her.
Remember that your son or daughter’s perception of the situation may not be completely objective, so don’t automatically think that the other parent has done something wrong. It is best to convey your child’s concerns in a neutral way and work with the other parent to find a solution.
While it is important to talk to your child about why they he doesn’t wish to visit the other parent, you should reassure your child that he is loved by both parents, which is why both of you want to spend time with him.
When Your Child Doesn’t Want to Visit You
If you’re the parent the child doesn’t want to visit, you also need to look at your own actions. Feeling rejected hurts at any age, but it is important for you to not only discuss with your child why he doesn’t want to visit you, but to be self-aware to how you may are acting when your child is around. While you think that you are blameless, children are apt to assign importance to actions adults may think little of doing.
Consider the following questions and think about your answers:
- Do you constantly show up late or cancel visits?
- Do you insist that your boyfriend/girlfriend or new spouse/family has to be included in all the activities you and your child do together? In other words, do you neglect one-on-one time with your child?
- Do you prepare and make plans in advance when you know your child is coming for a visit?
- Do you talk negatively about or badger your child for information about your ex?
- Do you forget to show up for or contact your child during his birthday and other special events?
- Do you spend time doing business or work activities when your children are with you?
- Do you forbid or get upset when your children communicate with the other parent while they are with you?
- Do you give your child time to adjust to different surroundings, household rules and customs?
- Are you involved in activities that center on them (soccer games, ballet class, school field trips, plays, etc.) instead of making them do things that are only of interest to you?
Children vs. Teens
As any parent can tell you, there is a big difference between younger children and teenagers. Teens handle situations differently and often show their anger or resentment in different ways than they may have when they were younger.
Can’t Teens Decide for Themselves Not to See a Parent?
It’s a common child custody myth that once children reach a certain age, they are perfectly within their rights to decide to limit their time with, or to not see a parent. This is false. In the majority of states–including Ohio–teens under the age of 18 cannot legally make the decision themselves whether or not to see their parent.
The only way to change this situation is for the custodial parent to go to court and try to get a modification of the custody agreement. Modifying shared parenting plans is not uncommon as children get older. Most judges realize that a parenting plan that worked for a two-year-old won’t usually work for a 10-year old, and a custody agreement made when a child was 10 doesn’t necessarily fit the lifestyle of a 16-year-old.
An experienced divorce lawyer should be able to tell you how much consideration your local county court usually gives to the wishes of children, but this is still not a guarantee that your child’s wants will be granted.
While most judges will take older children’s wishes into consideration, it is completely up to the court–not the teenager–whether or not they will grant a modification to the current visitation schedule, especially if one parent disagrees about changing it.
The Law Isn’t Real Life
While it is easy for the court to be pragmatic about teens and parental visitation, any parent can tell you that forcing a 15-year-old to who doesn’t want to visit the other parent isn’t going to go well. Threatening a child with punishment by taking away cell phones or other restrictions of freedom is not likely to do anything but make your child angry at both of you.
When they reach a certain age, most children would rather hang out with their friends than either one of their parents. Nothing is more boring to a teen than spending a weekend with dad or mom–especially if the other parent’s house isn’t close–and away from their home and friends.
The key here is to be flexible with the visitation schedule. If your daughter’s friend is having a slumber party on “your” weekend and you force her to spend the weekend with you instead, you’re going to be stuck with an resentful and miserable teenager–which is fun for no one. Work something out with the other parent and make arrangements with your child to get together on another weekend or during a different time.
Think outside of the box with teens. Let their friends come over or offer to drive them to their friend’s house. Count going to school or other events as time spent with your teen. Find something that the two of you can enjoy doing together. If your teen comes over and doesn’t want to do anything but sit and text her friends, leave her alone for a few hours (within reason) to do so.
No one likes to feel rejected–even adults–but keep the lines of communication open by staying in touch by text messaging and email. Show your teen that you love him and be patient with him.
Teens may act like they don’t care much about what their parents think or do, but they really do notice when you acknowledge their emotional and social needs.
Easing the Transition
There are several things you can do to ease the transition for your child when she is are going from one household to the other.
It’s not enough to simply take your child and hand him over. If your child is expressing reluctance to go, you need to encourage your child to spend time with the other parent. A few things you can do to make the transition a bit easier:
- Send a message through your body language, voice and words that you support him going to spend time with the other parent.
- Tell your child that she is going to enjoy the time with her mother or father.
- Make sure your child has everything he needs packed and ready to go.
- Reassure your child that you will miss her, but that you are fine with her being over at the other parent’s house.
- Don’t just drop your child off and leave, even if you don’t particularly want to see your ex. Try at least to say “hello” and wait until the child is safely inside the house, car, etc before you take off.
- When they come back, let them know that it is okay to share what they did with the other parent if they want to. If they’re comfortable talking about it, respond to any information about activities positively. (“You and dad went to the park? That sounds like fun! Did you feed the ducks?”)
All of these things need to be done on a regular basis, not just one time. Your behavior and actions have more of an effect on your children than you may know.
As the parent whose child does not want to visit it’s important to put your own feelings aside and figure out why he doesn’t want to visit. Your priority is to make sure that your child is as comfortable as possible at your residence.
Does your child have her own room with her own things? This is one of the best ways to make a child feel welcome. If you can’t afford a house or an apartment with extra space, then your child should have a closet, wardrobe or dresser where she can keep her stuff. If you have remarried or have children that live with you full time, it’s important for them to know that they are not to borrow or take from the room or closet unless the child it belongs to is present and is asked if it’s okay.
Keep foods and snacks that your children like. Have pictures of both parents together displayed prominently. Frame their artwork and display their crafts. This lets them know you are thinking about them even when they aren’t around. Keep dates of importance to them–birthdays, school events, activities–on a calendar or in your phone.
Keep up with what is going on in their lives and ask them about it. Spend one-on-one time with them doing what they like to do.
While you shouldn’t have to feel pressure to be the “fun parent” and spend large amounts of money to keep your child entertained, you should still be doing more than sitting around the house watching TV!
There is nothing wrong spending quiet time with your kid, but you should be doing active things as well–especially if your child is younger.
Get creative. There are a lot of things you can do together that are free or cost very little. Ride bikes, go to a free local play or concert, visit the park, have a neighborhood scavenger hunt, cook a meal, make a craft, go to the library, act like a tourist in your own city.
Give them permission to be homesick one in a while and let them communicate with the other parent if they want.
Communication and Compromise
Keeping the lines of communication open and being willing to compromise is important when dealing with others. As a divorced parent, you’re probably aware that problems in these areas can make or break a relationship!
Try to be proactive with the other parent as soon as any issues about visitation come up. It may be difficult to do, but as a parent, they need to know what is going on. Monitor your own behavior and realize when you may unintentionally sending negative signals to your child about their other parent.
Talk to them about why they are reluctant to visit. Don’t act like the parenting schedule is carved in stone, if you want to see your child, be willing to be flexible and work with the child as well as with the other parent.
If you’re a non-custodial parent, invite your children to just grab dinner or come over after school instead of making them feel obligated for a whole weekend or evening. See them by attending events or activities they participate in. Don’t pressure them to spend time with you instead of friends or try to make them feel guilty, because it will backfire.
When it comes to modifying a parenting plan, try to get both parents and the child involved. Get things worked out with the help of a mediator or attorney before going to court. Adversarial litigation will only cause more hurt and resentment for everyone involved.
This information is an excerpt from a series of blogs written by Jack Carney De-Bord, a Family Law attorney in southern Ohio.