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.
- 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.
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.
Again this is why Dr. Childress work is important, however it is also important that communication is facilitated and issues are resolved in a co-parenting environmentReplyDelete
What, is it co-parenting when a child is refused contact with a parent he wants to be with?Delete
I remember not wanting to go to my dad's house when I was younger. It was only because I thought it was boring there. My parents probably fretted and fussed over possible reasons: I didn't want to offend my dad by calling him boring, so opted to give no explanation.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the example. Good thing your dad didn't have a PA advocate at hand!Delete
Catching up on some of these other interesting posts. Have you discussed this with your parents to find out how they dealt with that--individually? Together? That would be interesting to understand. In the case of the Pathogenic Parenting that Dr. Childress offers, as I understand it, the child would be giving reasons/explanations not to go, but acting toward the targeted parent with attitudes of arrogance, disgust, etc and basing the reasoning on "small" stuff that would be considered normal parental perogatives. The reasons would not be showing the child as a "victim" and the rest of the process would not be progressing in the Victimizer/Victim/Protector narrative. It wouldn't be simple ennui or boredom...because those can be discussed and rooted out with good co-parenting if everyone is acting authentically. I would also expect those reasons, upon examination, not get to a level of disgust.Delete
I know of an instance of a teenage girl who, after her parents divorced, flat out refused to live with her father and his new girlfriend. She hadn't seen her father much in the previous years the parents having been living separately long before the actual divorce. The father tried to connect again with his daughter, but it didn't work, largely because he treated her like a much younger child, and she resented that. Basically, during the years of separation, he hadn't seen her grow up. As she was nearly 18, she argued for going to live on her own, and luckily for everybody, after a tense explanation, her father agreed (and was able to financially).ReplyDelete
In this case, the mother didn't get involved, because she didn't want to have the kids with her on her new life. I think the girl was disgusted with both parents, by that time.
I believe my oldest boy's father was actively working to turn him against me, as evidenced by him taking me to court over and over, until the court ordered therapy for each of us, with the boy, separately (as in, I would have a session with my son and the therapist, and his father would have a separate session with my son and his therapist). This worked well and my son and I are very close now. I am trying to frame why I think this works without insulting my ex, but all I can say is that the way it looked to me was that my ex was really into control, but he couldn't control the therapist - and also, I believe the therapist was genuinely interested in my son's welfare. It was a messy part of our lives and I'm glad it's over.ReplyDelete
A good therapist can be a huge help in these things. My concern is about the belief that the child should be forcibly separated from the preferred parent, as a form of therapy.Delete
Thank you for this article.ReplyDelete
Thanks for kind words!Delete