First and foremost: A child resisting visitation IS NOT a surefire sign that the child is being abused or otherwise mistreated by the other parent. While such occurrences certainly do happen from time to time, they are also fairly rare, and this is the least likely explanation as to why a child would be fussing about visitation. There are any number of other reasons that might cause a child to resist visitation with the other parent, all of which have nothing to do with maltreatment.
Reasons why children might be reluctant to visit a parent:
- They may sincerely want to see the other parent, but do not want to leave the one they have a closer attachment to. If your child is the type who would get anxious when spending the night at a friend’s house and call you in the middle of the night wanting to be picked up, then this is a likely possibility.
- They may have fewer friends around the neighborhood at the other parent’s house, and so they don’t want to leave one home for a place where they feel like an outsider. Sometimes kids face bullying in one neighborhood but not in another.
- They may deplore a lack of stimulation in the other household or a dearth of things to do, and so they foresee a long and boring time.
- They may have been happy and content playing as they had been or doing whatever they were doing in the moment, and so they don’t want to just get up and leave.
- They may be resentful because their friends in this neighborhood had been planning something special, or maybe they simply wanted to play with so and so this weekend. So they’ll fuss about the visit in protest.
- There may be strange new people in the home, such as girlfriends or boyfriends of the other parent. These people are most likely completely normal, but the child’s lack of a familiarity with them can make them seem strange or uncomfortable to be around.
Or it could be any number of other possible explanations that have nothing to do with the other parent being a bad parent.
What should you do if a child cries or puts up a protest during visitation exchanges?
- If you’re the parent doing the handoff, remember that it’s your job to help facilitate a healthy relationship between the child and your former spouse. So acknowledge your child’s feelings, but don’t take their side or play into their ambivalence.
- Have a conversation to find out what’s wrong. Better yet, ask them directly: what could we do to make this process better for you? This puts the focus on potential solutions, rather than problems.
- DO NOT tell the child that they don’t have to visit the other parent or otherwise stoke their discontent by making statements which suggest that visiting the other parent is a bad or painful thing. Saying they don’t have to do visitation is not being honest with them (visitation is generally court-mandated, so you can get in trouble for not letting the other parent see their child), and stoking their fears is a cruel thing to do to both the other parent and your child. Children feed off your emotions, and your own ideas and feelings will play a large part in how they feel about the situation.
If you’re the other parent:
- If you’re the parent in question, try not to take it personally. A child’s reluctance for court-mandated visitation is less about you than it is about the inconvenience of the imposed schedule and the freedoms they feel are taken away, especially when it comes to older kids.
- Find out what the primary problems are, and then see if you can work out a way to alleviate them. Remember this: Kids are often forced to sacrifice a lot to abide by visitation and custody agreements. They are yanked around like rag dolls, have to endure constant, ongoing instability in their lives, and must deal with the stress that comes with regularly switching homes. The least you could do is make some sacrifices yourself in return. Read the suggestions on our ‘Making Visitation Easier for Kids’ page, and implement as many of these tips as possible.