There is no question that some children and adolescents in divorced families refuse to visit one of their parents. It’s also very possible that some of these reluctant kids have been influenced by the attitudes or even the insistence of their preferred parent. What’s not so likely is that all cases of resistance or refusal on the part of children, unless they are connected with abusive treatment, are matters of “parental alienation” deliberately brought about by the preferred parent’s campaign of denigration against the other parent.
Very few human attitudes or behaviors are determined by single factors in the way proposed by parental alienation (PA) proponents. That’s why psychologists tend to be suspicious when they come across single-factor theories or theories limited to a very small number of factors but used to explain complex situations. Unfortunately, single-factor theories—so easy to explain, and apparently, to understand—are all too easy to introduce into legal decision-making, while more complex and realistic views may be excluded.
The PA view has been that there are only two categories of children who resist or refuse contact with one parent. One group has been physically abused by that parent, and the abuse has been documented, so their reluctance is seen as rational. The other group, with no documented history of physical abuse, have only “irrational” explanations for their aversion to one parent, and therefore must have been intentionally alienated by the parent they prefer. A range of bad consequences for the children are predicted if they remain with the preferred parent, and a complete change of custody is demanded.
Given that it’s possible that the PA claims are true in some cases, can we list some other possible reasons for children’s avoidance of a parent in the absence of a history of physical abuse? Of course we can, and I am far from the first to mention this. Children and adolescents may prefer to exercise their developing autonomy; to stay in the house they call home rather than having to go back and forth; to be in easy reach of their friends; to spend their time with friends’ companionship rather than having to devote time to a parent; to avoid criticism or demands from a parent or emotional abuse; to manage to ignore a parent’s disturbing sexual or romantic relationship with one or more new partners; to avoid a step-parent, step-siblings, or parents’ boyfriends or girlfriends; to arrange school, sports, or social activities as they prefer; to escape from questioning about the preferred parent.
Any or all of these issues may have very different impacts on children at different ages, so the child who at age 8 was indifferent to a parent’s romantic life may at age 14 find any evidence of such excruciatingly embarrassing. A child who at age 12 was delighted to spend a weekend camping may at age 16 want only to socialize with peers. In addition, individual differences in temperament may make one child easily distressed by unsought changes, while a brother or sister of different temperament can accept changes with equanimity.
When we examine psychological and behavioral issues that are not well-understood, one useful strategy can be to find some analogous events that are easier to study. Given that there are so many factors that can help to explain a child’s avoidance of a parent, it seems to be a good idea to find some parallel situation that may give insights into this kind of avoidance. Are there other things children avoid with intense emotion and resistance? Yes, and one of them is not uncommon: school refusal. About 35% of children sometimes refuse to go to school without a “rational” explanation-- some do this infrequently, while others may manage to avoid school most days for long periods of time. Children who refuse school not infrequently fight against going to school each morning, plead stomachaches, even vomit, scream and have tantrums. The great majority of their parents do not like this, want the child to go to school, fear the consequences for their own work responsibilities, and are disturbed about the social and educational outcomes for the child. (Parents who actually want the child to stay at home have the option of homeschooling, after all.) The parents don’t know what to do to get the child to go to school, and it is noticeable that they are rarely if ever accused of alienating the child from school.
In a 2009 article in Child Development Perspectives (Pina, Zerr, Gonzales, & Ortiz; “Psychosocial interventions for school refusal behavior in children and adolescents”, Vol. 3, pp. 11-20), the authors discuss children’s motivations for refusing school. I will list these, and in each case state in brackets a possible parallel with refusal to visit a parent:
1. 1.To avoid school-based stimulation like bullying that provokes negative emotion such as anxiety and depression [A child avoiding a parent may also be distressed about parental behavior that is anxiety- or depression-triggering, such as criticism of the child or the other parent, demands for more time or attention, poor parenting skills, insufficient attention paid to the child when he or she is present, or issues that have to do with the parent’s home, friends, or partners and their children]
2. 2. To escape aversive social or evaluative situations like difficulty in making friends or public exposure for lack of school achievement [A child avoiding a parent may find it difficult or awkward to have social interaction with that parent, especially a parent who lacks social or parenting skills, or may feel exposed to criticism for failures to perform scholastically or athletically to the parent’s expectations]
3. 3. To get attention from significant others such as parents and concerned teachers [A child avoiding a parent may find his or her behavior rewarded by the attention of one or both parents who have been distracted, perhaps for several years, by their own marital situation]
4. 4. To pursue reinforcing events outside school, like playing or shopping [The child avoiding a parent may enjoy his or her own devices, toys, and books and “own room”, as well as familiar foods and routines, a parent who is easier to be with, and the availability of siblings and friends]
In addition to this list of motivations with their possible parallels in avoidance of a parent, Pina et al noted characteristics of children who refuse school, such as poor social skills, social isolation, high levels of family conflict, and a poor sense of self-efficacy in stressful situations.