When Children Fight Visitation

The Anxiety of Transition for the Littlest Children

Refusal to leave the custodial parent is most common in very young children because they are 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 have had “repeated distressing separations and maintain an anxious attachment to the parent. It is also possible that children under the ages of four or five do not have a sufficient understanding of the concept of time and, for this reason, are confused about the particular visitation schedule. Consequently, they are anxious about when they will be reunited with the primary or custodial parent.”

If you and your ex-spouse 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 this and willingness to work with the other parent to ease his or her 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 that you are not bad-mouthing your ex-spouse in front of your children or sending them negative messages. If you want what's best for your children, you must put aside your feelings toward your ex-spouse 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.

Silver Linings

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.

Red Alert

Participating in open conflict—whether it is 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.

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 did not 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.

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. Perhaps, 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-spouse cannot always control the expression of powerful, negative emotions. Moreover, they may be unaware of just how much they are 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 will just be turning up the flames on your kid.”

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Surviving Divorce © 2002 by BookEnds, LLC. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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