Parenting After Divorce: When Kids Take Sides

Here's helpful information on how to handle your children if they fight visitation with the noncustodial parent after divorce.
When Kids Fight Custody
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In some cases, children will refuse to stay with the noncustodial parent. Here are some reasons why this might happen:

  • A parent is not tuned in to the children's interests or is not actively involved with the children during their time together.
  • Your children may be very young and 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.
  • In rare cases, there may be child abuse.

If your children don't want to leave their primary home to be with their other parent, having a good heart-to-heart with your ex should be the first step. The problem may be easily resolved, such as paying more attention to the children, a change in discipline style or having more toys or other entertainment at the other home.

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.

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.

What's your scenario? If your children are resisting visitation, scrutinize the situation. Perhaps a simple change will turn things around for you, too.

Parenting Q&A

Either or both parents may unknowingly be causing the children's refusal to go. Here are two checklists, one for the custodial parent and the other for the noncustodial parent, to gauge your "performance" as a divorced parent. Be honest. You're the only one looking at this.

Custodial Parent Q&A

  • 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 Q&A

  • 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) instead of dragging them to things that are important to me but of no interest to them. ____Yes ____No

The Anxiety of Transition for the Littlest Children

Refusal to leave the custodial parent is most common in very young children because they're too young to carry a mental image of the parent to whom they are most attached (usually their mother) and fear 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. A parent's recognition of that and willingness to work with the other parent to ease their children's anxiety will go a long way toward building trust and bonding.

Insensitivity, on the other hand, can result in continual resistance to leaving the primary residence and the eventual failure of the child-parent relationship.

When a Parent Is Maligned

If you think your ex has begun to wage a serious campaign against you with the kids (engaging in what's now called “Parental Alienation Syndrome” or PAS), you should suggest that your spouse and children see a mental health professional to aid their adjustment to visitation.

If your ex refuses to seek help, you might be justified in seeing your attorney to 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 you are the custodial parent in a heavily litigated case and your children refuse to visit their other parent, make sure you're not bad-mouthing your ex in front of your children or sending them negative messages. If you want what's best for your children, you have to put aside your feelings toward your ex and encourage your children to develop or maintain a relationship with their other parent.

If your children lose their other parent, their self-esteem will take a nosedive, and they'll suffer feelings of abandonment—even if it now seems that they don't want to be with that parent.

If you have a good relationship with your children who are old enough to know better, they're generally not going to buy the hard line that you're awful if you're really not. As long as you're totally tuned in to your children, empathetic with their emotional needs and helping to build their self-esteem, you should be able address any attempt by your ex 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 your children. 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 rejections 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.

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What could Rebecca's father have done in this situation instead of giving up? For one thing, he might have let Rebecca know the door was always open for her. For instance, he might have continued to send regular postcards or letters, even if Rebecca didn't respond.

Maybe she would ask to see him again—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 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.” It might also be useful for the offending parent to seek therapy.

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.”