- A 6-year-old boy who spends most of his time with his father begins to refuse visits to the mother after he overhears the mother’s boyfriend telling her she must “make a man of him” by taking away his nightlight and spanking him if he cries. The mother does not comply, but the boy is still disturbed and unable to explain the problem to anyone.
- A 12-year-old girl who recently had her first menstrual period no longer wants to visit her father. She can’t explain this, but she does not know how she can handle menstrual hygiene without speaking to her father about it, which seems to her the most embarrassing thing that could possibly happen. What, for instance, if she got her period unexpectedly and got blood on the bedsheets? She feels that would be the end of the world.
- A 13-year-old boy has spent occasional weekends with his mother for years, but now does not want to go. He feels frequent intense urges to masturbate but has no privacy in her apartment, as he has always slept in one of the twin beds in her room. If he spends much time in the bathroom she knocks and asks if he is feeling all right.
- A 14-year-old girl has been visiting her father happily over a period of several years, but began to refuse after the father’s girlfriend moved in with him. A therapist consulted by the father has stated that she has Separation Anxiety Disorder, although she has no problem going to school or elsewhere and will visit the father’s house but does not want to sleep over.
- A boy in his middle teens has been visiting his father overnight for ten years, through a remarriage, a new divorce, and another marriage. He comes home looking distressed one day and tells his mother he does not want to sleep there again. There is no separate bed for him at his father’s house and he is expected to share a big bed with the younger stepbrother. He does not want to discuss this with his father and asks his mother simply to tell the father that he would prefer to have a visit with the father somewhere away from the house.
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Divorced Parents: Does Your Child Not Want to Visit You?
Some divorced couples find that children easily go back and forth from one household to the other, take it for granted that this will happen, and maintain good relationships with both parents. But many discover that this ideal situation is present at some times but not at others, perhaps changing with the child’s age or other events in their lives. In some cases, a child vehemently refuses to visit one of the parents at some point, feelings are badly hurt, and blame is cast in various directions.
When a child “rejects” a parent, it’s all too easy for the “rejected” or “non-preferred” person to accept advice about parental alienation (PA) and to seek treatment that will make the child enthusiastic and affectionate. Psychologists and others who think in terms of PA often claim that there are only two reasons why a child would reject a parent and refuse to visit. One is that the parent has been in some way abusive, so that the child’s response is a rational one. The alternative is that the child is behaving irrationally because of the influence of the preferred parent, who is deliberately and intentionally alienating the child’s affections by stating that that the other parent is someone to be feared and avoided.
I have no doubt that intentional parental alienation does happen sometimes, and that this can occur even when a marriage is still intact. It’s also possible that a parent of a young child may unintentionally convey fearfulness of the other parent, and the child may pick up on and share that feeling, becoming reluctant to approach one of the parents. Nevertheless, it is simplistic to assume that there are only two categories of situations where a child rejects or avoids a parent—the rational avoidance of a person who has been abusive, and the irrational avoidance of a good parent at the instruction of the other parent. I would submit that in many cases, refusal of contact may be perfectly rational in the context of the child’s own experience and age-related needs and abilities, although it appears irrational to the adult who considers the child’s actions only in terms of the adult’s own needs, knowledge, and cognitive abilities—that is, the adult approaches the issue with an adultomorphic bias that attributes adult characteristics to the child.
Let’s look at some examples of situations where a child has never been abused by a parent, but has excellent reasons to avoid visiting that parent-- reasons that he or she either will not or cannot confide to adults.
All these situations, except possibly the bed-sharing, may appear “irrational” to adults who cannot or at least do not take the child’s perspective. The child’s reluctance or inability to explain the trouble adds to this appearance of irrationality. Although the “rejected” parents may hasten to blame the refusal on an alienating co-parent, it’s clear that there are several other causes for the children’s feelings. One is the tendency, sometimes called “funneling”, for non-custodial parents to fail to notice developmental changes and to continue to treat children as if they are still at the age where they were when the marriage came apart. One is the presence of new romantic partners in the parents’ lives and the difficulty of providing the children with their accustomed time alone with a parent, complicated by the real uncertainty about what the relationship between child and new partner should be. Another, and an important one, is the role of verbal or nonverbal communication about sexuality with an opposite-sex parent, whether this has to do with the child’s own sexuality (including menstruation) or with the child’s awareness of the parent’s love life—so especially disturbing for adolescents, who do not want to know about this even when their parents are happily married. All of these issues need to be considered before there are PA accusations, and certainly before children are separated from the preferred parent’s home by court order.