Separation and divorce is often a confusing, scary time for children. In an ideal scenario, the children will have good quality contact with both parents. They will move between households smoothly, and feel safe and loved at both. You and your ex-spouse will work effectively as a co-parenting team, so the children experience consistent values and routines, wherever they are.
Of course, it’s rare for the ideal scenario to play out 100% of the time. Even if you generally have a good system in place, there will be bumps in the road. And one of the most anxiety-inducing is when they don’t want to see their other parent. So what to do when your child doesn’t want to see their other parent?
Try to get the bottom of why
There are hundreds of reasons why your child might resist seeing their other parent. In this blog we are focussing on situations where both parents are safe and loving. You might not see eye to eye with your ex-spouse, or agree with all of their parenting choices, but you know, deep down, that they are a safe person for your child to be with. If you do suspect abuse, skip to the bottom, I have some information for you there. And if you are the parent they’re refusing to see, I have some reassurance for you at the end too.
So, in a safe and loving situation, why might your child resist seeing their other parent? It will very much depend on their age and personality, but here are a few common themes:
- You are their primary caregiver and they prefer the familiarity of their main home
- You are not their primary caregiver and they want more time with you
- The rules are different at each household, and they feel more comfortable with yours
- The food is different (even small differences like the brand of bread or butter they use)
- It’s boring at the other house because their favourite things are at yours
- It’s boring at the other house because the other parent doesn’t do anything with them
- Your children don’t like the people your ex-spouse spends time with
- They don’t get to see their friends when they are with the other parent
- The other parent had a grumpy moment and snapped at your child
- One or both parents are critical of the other, and your child feels the need to take sides
There may be other reasons specific to your child and family’s situation. The important thing to recognise here is that what might seem like a small thing to you actually feels like a dealbreaker to your child.
This isn’t about blame. Yes, some of the reasons might be due to suboptimal parenting from your ex-spouse: perhaps they’ve spent too much time ignoring the children while working or being with friends. Equally, some of the reasons might be completely circumstantial. For example, it’s understandable if they didn’t realise that their preferred butter tastes different and makes your child feel anxious!
Listen to your child
You’re most likely to get your child to open up about what’s bothering them if you can raise it lightly, rather than making a big deal. Don’t put your child on the spot, and demand they sort it out there and then. That centres the child as the problem and means they’ll clam up.
Instead, choose a moment when you’re both relaxed and connected. Maybe you’re having a walk together, in the car, or watching a TV show. Ask them what it is that puts them off going to their other home. And listen to what they say, without offering suggestions or solutions.
If they can’t or won’t talk to you about it, get in contact with your ex-spouse. Again, this isn’t about blame. You’re not going for a “What have you done wrong so they don’t want to see you?!” tone. You’re going for something more like “Ava is saying she doesn’t want to come at the weekend. What do you think we can do to turn this around?”
Problem solve together
Remember, even if your child’s reasons feel silly to you, they are important and valid. You aren’t aiming to coerce your child into spending time with their other parent. You’re looking to work together so your child feels comfortable, even excited, to do so. And that means problem solving together. Ask them what would help, and take their suggestions seriously.
It might be that what they want isn’t realistic. Perhaps they wish their dad’s house was next to yours so they can play with their friends in the street every evening. And neither you nor your ex have any desire to become neighbours! But perhaps their dad could bring them round to play at their friend’s house, or invite them over on the weekend. Or if they live further away, perhaps their dad could introduce them to local children, or enrol them in a Saturday club to make new friends. Once you know what’s at the heart of the problem there are often ways to make it better.
Perhaps your ex-spouse has some idea of what’s going on. They might not want to give you all the details: maybe they guiltily realise they have spent the past few weekends watching too much TV and neglected little Alfie. As long as they realise and start to remedy the situation, you have a positive outcome. This isn’t about winning ‘best parent’ competitions.
If between some combination of you and your child, you and your ex-spouse, or all three, you can come up with some workable ideas that make your child happier about visiting, you’re onto a winner.
It might be useful to get professional support in your problem solving. Family mediation can help you have constructive conversations with your ex-spouse. Your child may also be able to speak with the mediator, and may find it easier to talk to someone who has some distance from their family.
If your child continues to be troubled is there another trusted adult they could talk to? It might be appropriate to enlist a specialist child counsellor, or it might be that a neighbour or relative can offer a supportive and listening ear.
Be firm but flexible
It’s in your child’s best interests to have a relationship with both parents. You don’t want to dismiss their concerns, but stopping contact with the other parent is not a solution either. As we’ve explored, the key is in problem-solving together. But you get to set the boundaries.
Gently explain to your child why it’s so important they spend time with both parents. And let them know you all want to work to make that happen. It might be that a change in routine is needed for a while. Discuss with your ex-spouse what might be possible. For example, if your child doesn’t want to stay overnight, can you agree they do more daytime and evening visits for the next month? Or visit at your home rather than theirs?
Make sure that whatever you agree is acceptable to you, and that there are clear limits on it. Having your ex-spouse rebuild their relationship with your child in your house might be a helpful and necessary step for a few weeks, but it’s unlikely you want that as a long term solution. Write down any changes to your usual arrangements, as well as a deadline for when you’ll review. With younger or neurodiverse children it might be helpful to have pictures to remind them of the temporary plan, and when it will change again.
If you suspect abuse
If you are concerned that your child is at risk, then your first duty is to their safety. Make sure to document your concerns, and the evidence you have for them. Notify the police and your legal team. It is possible to take out injunctions against your ex-spouse, on behalf of your children as well as yourself. You can find out more about what to do in abusive or violent situations here.
If your child doesn’t want to see you
What about if it’s the other way around, and you’re the parent who’s being shunned? There will be a blog getting into this in more detail soon, but for now I urge you to hang on in there. Don’t give up – your child needs you.
As I’ve said, it’s not at all unusual for children to go through phases of not wanting to see one parent or the other. And it usually does pass before too long – even if it feels like an eternity when you’re in the middle of it.
It helps if you can take a problem solving, rather than a blaming, approach like we’ve explored here. Enlist the help of your ex-spouse, and other professionals if you can. Keep being open, and let your child know you love them and want to see them.
Want some help working out a plan?
As a trained family mediator and NLP (neuro linguistic processing) practitioner, as well as a High Conflict Diversion specialist, I am well equipped to help you navigate these tricky waters. Whether it’s coming up with a communication strategy to keep things calm with your ex-spouse, or developing a workable parenting plan, I can help.
Just book in a free 30 minute consultation and we can take it from there together.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com