Amid or following divorce or separation, some families face the issue of one or more children refusing to be in contact with one of the parents. While the dynamics of any family experiencing this can be quite complicated, children may behave in this way for a variety of reasons.

Here are some examples (for the purposes of this article, one parent is referred to as the preferred parent, the other the resisted parent):

  • There may be conflict between the parents, and the child does not want to remain caught in the middle.
  • The child may have been closer to one parent than the other when everyone lived together.
  • The child may be in a developmental phase where alignment with one parent over the other is age- and/or gender-related.
  • One parent may be involved with a new partner before the child is ready and/or comfortable with the situation.
  • The preferred parent is more financially secure or otherwise stable than the resisted parent.
  • The child chooses who he or she believes most needs to be taken care of based on the circumstances.
  • There is ongoing litigation (even if the children do not know the details, they often see the effects of the stress).
  • Both the preferred parent and the child believe the resisted parent is not safe.

In these situations, it is often the favored parent’s belief that the resisted parent caused the resistance; meanwhile, the resisted parent often believes that the favored parent is responsible for the child’s refusal to see him or her. While either of these scenarios can certainly be the case, families are complicated systems in which many behaviors and relationships impact what everyone experiences.

There are two important options, which are not mutually exclusive, to consider here: (1) Improve both the favored and resisted parents’ relationships with the child, or (2) improve the co-parenting relationship. As complicated as the family system may be, individual relationships within the system can be addressed. Both parents have responsibility for their part in the family dynamic, including the favored parent.

When children can see their parents having civil and respectful interactions and making it a mutual priority to offer safety, this often leads to a relaxation of the need to push one parent away.

The favored parent may have a difficult time seeing or appreciating how he or she responded when the child did not want to see the other parent. When a child tells you about something negative that happened with the other parent, for example, it can feel natural to sympathize with the child and build a case against or undermine the connection between the child and the resisted parent. This isn’t fair to the other parent or the child. When a child provides negative information, contacting the other parent and asking what he or she knows about it is a good place to start. Secondly, it’s important to help your child understand that he or she can talk to the other parent about it and not have you be his or her voice.

The resisted parent, of course, has an important role to play in the relationship with the child and in behaving in a way that is inviting. Children who resist a parent sometimes feel the expression of affection, for example, as intrusive. It can be expressed, however, without the expectation of reciprocation. This gives the child room to make a choice. It sometimes happens, with time, that the child begins to respond. It is important that the resisted parent let the child know he or she is loved, without conditions.

There are many more ways for both the resisted parent and the preferred parent to alter their behaviors with the goal of improving the relationships between children and parents. The most important is to improve the co-parenting relationship. When children can see their parents having civil and respectful interactions and making it a mutual priority to offer safety, this often leads to a relaxation of the need to push one parent away.

If a child in your family is resistant toward one parent and your co-parenting strategies have been ineffective, contact a therapist in your area for help.