I recently attended a seminar taught by clinical child psychologist, Edward Farber (author of Raising the Kid You Love with the Ex You Hate) on what he calls “Resist and Refuse” cases—when a child resists or refuses to see one parent in a divorce or separation. Dr. Farber focused on those cases where the child’s refusal to see a parent was unjustified and acknowledged that cases where the rejection was justified (like abuse and neglect cases) present a very different topic.
This comes up frequently in my cases. I have represented preferred parents and rejected parents, and it’s always a tough situation for all involved. Even in those cases where both parents are actively working together to try to get a child to spend time with the rejected parent, as a parent of any preteen or teen knows–it can be really hard to get your child to go somewhere he or she doesn’t want to go.
What is going on psychologically?
According to Dr. Farber, the desire for a child not to see a parent can become a phobia. He used an analogy of an elevator phobia. If you are afraid of elevators, the anticipation of having to use an elevator is overwhelming, and the closer you get to the elevator, the more the fear intensifies. If you end up avoiding the elevator and taking the stairs, the anxiety and discomfort immediately goes away. You immediately feel so much better and therefore you think your fear of the elevator was justified.
He explains the way that children think about the rejected parent can be similar. The child doesn’t want to see the parent. As the time for visitation comes closer, the child’s anxiety increases. If the child avoids visitation, then he or she immediately feels better from the relief of not seeing the parent. The fear feels justified and the pattern continues. The longer this goes on, the greater the phobia becomes and the harder it is to overcome.
From a psychological perspective, what treatments are available?
It is important to find a therapist with experience in divorce, separation, co-parenting and reunification matters. Dr. Farber emphasized that talk therapy alone is often not enough to get a child ready to see a parent again. He emphasized that a good reunification expert will mix individual counseling with exposure to the rejected parent, by either slowly working the child up to seeing more of the rejected parent or in some circumstances being thrown in to spending time with the rejected parent.
A good therapist can guide the parties for what is right in the particular situation. Dr. Farber cautioned however, that both parents and the child have to be actively involved in fixing the problem, and all three people have to be willing to change their own behavior if needed. If one person is not willing and open to change, then reunification will not work.
If your child is rejecting you or your ex, what should you do?
- Don’t wait to get help. It is important for parents who find themselves in these situations to get lawyers and therapists involved as early as possible. It is important to prevent a child from going too long without seeing either parent. The more time that goes by without the child seeing one parent, the harder it will be for that child to start spending time with the rejected parent again and the more of an emotional toll the separation will cause. Statistics show that children do best when they have a healthy relationship with both parents. So don’t wait to consult an attorney in the hope that things will get better. Don’t wait to find a therapist who can help. Know your options early, have a game plan you develop with your lawyer (with input perhaps from your child’s therapist), and stop this problem before it grows any bigger.
- Don’t leave it up to your child. Waiting for a child to be ready to see the rejected parent creates a no win situation for a child. If they continue not to see a parent they may feel guilty for hurting that parent’s feelings. If they go to visitation, they may feel sad about leaving the preferred parent behind. So get a counselor, hire a lawyer and file in court. Even if your child is saying that they do not want any of those things, let your child be the child and you be the adult. Do not tell your child that he or she gets to decide.
- Refrain from speaking to your child about court and the divorce. The more a child feels enmeshed in their parents’ problems and the more they are aware of pleadings and court appearances, the greater their anxiety will be about the whole situation. Additionally, the more pressure they may feel to choose sides. If your child asks about court, just say that you and their dad/mom are handling it and they don’t have to worry about it. Shut the conversation down. Remember your children are not emotionally able to handle this information.
- Speak positively about the other parent. Whether you are the rejected or preferred parent, it may be hard for you to encourage the relationship your child has with the other parent, but this is important. The message should be “Yay! You get to go to dad’s tonight! That will be so much fun.” Or, “Absolutely, I understand why you want to be at mom’s house the night of the dance instead of mine. Mom is so good at fixing hair! I’ll see you next time.” The message should never be, “I’m sad that you want to spend time with dad/mom.”
- Avoid the pitfalls these cases present. In contested custody cases, the preferred parent is often accused of alienating the child from the other parent, and the rejected parent is often accused of taking actions that cause the child to not want to be with that parent. I work closely with my clients to help them understand how the other side might try to back these allegations up in court, and make sure that my clients look like the most reasonable person in this picture. It is hard work but it will pay off if you are prepared for court if or when that is needed.