Co-Parenting Problems: What to Do When Your Child Fights Visitation

Updated: April 27, 2022
What to do when kids fight visitation and don't follow custody agreements following divorce. Follow these co-parenting strategies.
African dad talking to upset mixed race kid daughter leaving family with suitcase in hallway
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You have visitation rights and are ready to start co-parenting effectively. But you also feel like, "My child doesn't want to see me." What can you do to cut the tension and co-parent in a way that makes sense for everybody involved? 

Even though the court gave both you and your ex the right to spend time with your kiddo, sometimes just don't want to stay with the noncustodial parent. When you're the parent who is losing together-time, this situation can feel much more than messy. Before anyone starts playing the blame game of divorced parents or you give up and give in, check out what you need to know about noncustodial parent visitation, healthy relationships, and how to co-parent your way through this potentially rocky road in an amicable way. 

Related: What You Need to Know About Custody 

Why Do Children Ignore Visitation Rights and Custody Agreements? 

Your kiddo probably doesn’t care what the court has to say about child custody. A judge or mediator created a visitation schedule as part of the divorce process–and you’re ready to follow it. But your child can’t seem to get on board. Whether they cry and scream or fall silent and act sullen when it’s time to switch from one parent to the other, this is a family issue that you need to resolve ASAP. The wait-and-see approach may work in some circumstances–but this is not one of them. 

Why might your child ignore your visitation rights and ask (or demand) to stay put? Keep in mind that a child’s perception of a new separation or divorce is sometimes far from the reality of the situation. This means what may feel like a personal attack on your parenting is more of a “how your child sees what’s going on” thing than what is really happening. Here are some reasons why a child might not want to visit the noncustodial parent:

  • The child doesn’t feel heard or seen equally by both parents.
  • Your young child is anxious about separation from the parent who does the majority of the care-taking.
  • Open conflict is causing the children to appear to be aligned temporarily with one parent.
  • Your child is worried that the other parent will feel sad or anxious while they’re away.
  • Your older child believes visitation will interfere with their social life, an after-school activity/sport, or other plans. 

For example…

Sara, who was 12 years old, called her father to tell him that she didn't want to go to his house that weekend. She said her girlfriends were having a slumber party, and she didn't want to miss it. Her father insisted that she visit him instead of going to the party.

This wasn't the first time Sara had to miss a social event because that was her weekend to see her father. She felt misunderstood and resented her father for keeping her from her friends. Ultimately, she started feeling as if she didn't want to be with him at all.

If her father and mother had been more flexible with the visitation schedule, on the other hand, Sara could have had her social life and would have felt that her father really understood and cared about her emotional and social needs.

Or…

Six months after his parents divorced, nine-year-old Allen began refusing to go to his father's place for the weekend. When asked on several occasions, he wouldn't say why. Finally, he admitted that he was bored because his father would spend most of his time finishing reports for work, and Allen had no one to play with.

When Allen opened up about his feelings, his father made sure to do his work after Allen went to sleep and devoted his time to Allen. After that, Allen looked forward to his weekends with his dad.

Cute sad little African American girl hug dad standing with suitcase leaving for business trip, upset small mixed race kid embrace father saying goodbye, parents separating. Shared custody concept

Does Age Matter? 

Yes, age may play a role in the child’s refusal to visit the noncustodial parent. Very young children may not have the cognitive abilities to carry a mental image of the parent to whom they are most attached. This could lead to a fear of abandonment.

For these young children, the transition from one parent to the other can set off anxiety about safety and survival. According to Janet Johnston, a foremost researcher in children and high-conflict divorce, children up to six years old may continue to have difficulty if they've had “repeated distressing separations and maintain an anxious attachment to the parent. It's also possible that children under the ages of four or five don't have a sufficient understanding of the concept of time and, for this reason, are confused about the particular visitation schedule. Consequently, they're anxious about when they'll be reunited with the primary or custodial parent.”

If you and your ex get along, and your children are very young, the cause of your children's refusal to leave their residential home is likely normal, age-related separation anxiety–and not an outright refusal of your visitation rights. A parent's recognition of this and willingness to work with the other parent to ease their children's anxiety will go a long way toward building trust and bonding. 

What Happens When a Parent is Alienated? 

Upset frustrated little girl tired of parent fight, toddler daughter holding toy dreaming that family conflicts would stop, suffering from mother and father quarrels, bad family relationship, break up

You feel like, “My child doesn’t want to see me.” And, you think it has something to do with your ex. If your ex is waging a serious campaign against you with the kids (engaging in what's now called “Parental Alienation Syndrome” or PAS), you may need to do more than talking it out. Suggest that your spouse and children (or all of you) see a mental health professional to aid the adjustment to visitation. This can help your ex-spouse during difficult times and improve your entire family’s well-being. 

What should you do if your ex doesn’t want to help or outright refuses to see a counselor? Start by reminding them that their decisions impact your child’s life. If your ex-spouse refuses to seek help, you might be justified in seeing your family law attorney request that the court mandate a mental health intervention, and perhaps a change in physical custody or visitation, depending upon who's alienating whom. Complex situations such as this call for psychological—and perhaps, even legal—intervention for the entire family.

If there is a good parent and child relationship, and your children are older, they're generally not going to buy the hard line that you're awful when you're really not. As long as you're totally tuned in to your children, are empathetic with their emotional needs, and help to build their self-esteem, you should be able to address any attempt by your ex-spouse to alienate you from your kids. But, if you think your children are being “brainwashed,” discuss your suspicions calmly with them. You'll get a better feel for the true situation at their other home, and, hopefully, you'll be able to address any issues that arise.

Participating in open conflict—whether it's screaming at each other or making snide remarks—is the single most damaging thing you can do to children of divorce. Although you have no control over your ex, you do have control over yourself. Don't get dragged into a fight. Stay cool.

For Example...

Rebecca's parents separated because her father was seeing another woman. Rebecca was eight years old when her father moved out.

Her mother was in shock. When the shock wore off, her mother was filled with rage. She didn't hide her feelings from Rebecca. Instead, she told Rebecca that her father couldn't be trusted and that he was insensitive and even cruel.

Rebecca couldn't bear to see her mother so distressed. She aligned herself with her mother against her father. Even though she had been close to her father before the divorce, her angry feelings prevented her from relating to him. She didn't even want to see him.

Rebecca's father accused her mother of brainwashing Rebecca against him. He went to court to try to gain custody. The litigation was heated and drawn out. Rebecca suffered terribly from the fighting and the insecurity of not knowing where she would be living. She continued to refuse to see her father.

Eventually, her father, who lost the custody battle, became less and less interested in fighting Rebecca's rejection of him. He and his girlfriend married and started a family of their own. As far as Rebecca was concerned, he found it easiest to just drift away.

What could Rececca’s father have done differently? For one thing, he might have let Rebecca know the door was always open for her. He could have sent regular postcards and letters—even if Rebecca didn't respond. Maybe she would ask to see him again. But, in her own time. At the very least, she'd have concrete evidence to prove her dad still cared, despite her refusal to see him.

When your ex maligns you to your child, it puts your relationship at risk. Yet, psychologists note that a hurt, angry ex can't always control the expression of powerful, negative emotions. They may also be unaware of just how much they're damaging the child they love.

How do you handle this visitation rights situation without drawing the child into the conflict more than he or she already is? According to psychologist Karen Breunig, co-author of Through the Eyes of a Child, “The best thing that I would advise is to appeal to the better graces of the offending parent. Explain how damaging this is for the child since the child identifies with both parents.” 

If your ex remains closed to such suggestions, Breunig says you should discuss the situation with your child. Explain that you are going to try to work the situation out with the other parent and, if appropriate, assure the child that the statements made about you are not true. “Leave the lines of communication open so that your child can feel comfortable about checking these accusations with you, personally,” says Breunig.

“Whatever you do,” she concludes, “do not fight fire with fire. You'll just be turning up the flames on your kid.”

How Should You Talk To Your Child About Your Custody Agreement? 

Mother dropping off young daughter to stay at her father's house

More specifically, do you need to talk to your child about visitation rights? A toddler, preschooler, or younger child won’t understand your “rights.” But this doesn’t mean that they will always go willingly. Never make your child feel bad about themselves for their emotions–whether they express them appropriately or not. Divorce is difficult for the young child to grasp and your little one might not fully understand why their parents no longer live in one house. An adolescent can discuss visitation, custodial issues, and their parent’s divorce on a more adult-like level. If you’re still not sure how to talk to your child, the pediatrician, support groups, or a mental health expert can help.

How Can You Figure Out the Visitation Issue? 

Again, start with the co-parenting relationship. Avoid arguing in front of your children. After talking to your child, you should have a better grasp of the situation or the root problem. If the issue starts with you, now is the time for some self-reflection. But this doesn’t mean you have to handle the problem alone. Communicate with your ex and explain what you have gained from a candid conversation with your kiddo. You may need help from your co-parent to work through what happens next. This could include:

  • Scheduling adjustments. Does your child feel like you spend more time answering emails, taking calls from clients, or working from home than with them? If you have to work late on some days or on some weekends, ask your ex if you could switch visitation schedules.
  • Discussions on your ex’s end. Has your co-parent discussed the visitation issue with your child? This is a hard time for everyone involved. They may need to have an open, honest, and positive discussion with your child too. 
  • Ask about activities. Is your older child worried about missing social commitments, soccer games, or other activities when they’re with you? Discuss your child’s schedule with your ex. This can help you to plan for activities in advance. With a full schedule at your disposal, you can create a visitation calendar that includes everything your child wants or needs to do. 
  • You can also ask other loved ones to help mom and dad with pick up/drop off.

What's your scenario? Is child support an issue? If your children are resisting visitation, scrutinize the situation. Perhaps a simple change will turn things around for you, too. If you’re not sure where to start, take this parenting plan Q&A. 

Custodial Parent

  • I have done my best to encourage my children's visits with their other parent. ____Yes ____No
  • I don't give double messages to my children about seeing their other parent. ____Yes ____No
  • I make sure my children know that, although I miss them, I know they'll be well taken care of. ____Yes ____No
  • I tell my children I'm fine when they're away. ____Yes ____No
  • I make sure to pack everything my children need so their time with their other parent goes smoothly. ____Yes ____No

 

Noncustodial Parent 

  • I understand it takes a while for my children to adjust to different surroundings, household rules, and customs. I don't pressure them to forget about their other parent when they're with me. ____Yes ____No
  • I make a mental note if, after a reasonable amount of time with me, my children aren't adjusting. ____Yes ____No
  • I allow my children to speak to their other parent on the phone. ____Yes ____No
  • I don't do my work when my children are with me and are awake. ____Yes ____No
  • To stay involved with my children, I participate as much as possible in activities that center on their lives (Little League, dance class, play dates, and so on). ____Yes ____No

 

For more advice on how to successfully co-parent after a divorce, check out: Life After Divorce: What to Do If Your Kid Is Playing Sides?