What To Do If a Child Resists a Parent

By Mat Wirove, Senior Family Lawyer and Mediator, Calgary

A significant issue we see when parents are divorcing, or separating is that their child(ren) begins to resist access and parenting time with one of the parents. This can become a very complex issue and extremely challenging to preserve the child’s sense of family and relationship with the resisted parent.

There are numerous reasons why a child may resist a parent: has the preferred parent undermined the child’s relationship with the resisted parent? Did the resisted parent not develop a secure bond with the child during the relationship? Are there differences in parenting styles? Are there lifestyle elements that bind the child’s alliance with one parent, such as shared religious beliefs or gender preferences? Does a parent have a new partner that the child resists? Or has the child been caught in a series of disputes between the parents that has required them to choose a side? All the possibilities need to be explored and it may be that different factors contribute to the process in different ways, at different times. Whether the resistance may be justified or unjustified, there is no single or simple explanation for why it happens or how to best respond. Due to the complexity of these types of issues, it is usually best to engage experts such as a psychologist to assist in overcoming these issues.

The onset of resistance can be rapid, and the resisted parent may not even be aware that the child has become resistant to them until it’s too late. In fact, showing any frustration to the child about the resistance may reinforce their beliefs that the resistance is justified. How to show affection then becomes a challenge where the parent needs to continue to express their affection, but the child may question their intentions. When expressing love and support, the resisted parent should try to do it in a way that allows the child to receive the message without feeling the need to respond. For example, say, “I love you no matter what,” rather than, “can I have a hug?”. Allow the child to hear your affection without requiring a response. Do not make the mistake of counter-rejecting the child and saying something like “I do not want to see you unless you want to see me, so let me know when you want some time with me.” For the resisted parent this is going to be a very difficult test of your love for your child. Do not give up, because ironically this could turn into more evidence for the child that you no longer want a relationship. Some other general tips for the resisted parent include:

  • Do not insist on your child hugging or kissing you or family members
  • Do not make long-winded or highly emotional statements about how much you love and miss your child
  • Show affection by sending cards and/or gifts for birthdays and holidays, even if they are returned
  • Show affection by showing up at extracurricular, school and sporting events (unless there is a court order that prohibits the attendance)
  • Show you care by considering your child’s wish not to be around someone you are dating
  • Discourage extended family from contacting your child directly if they do not want it. 
  • Be sure to tell family members not to express their thoughts about the family conflict, who is to blame and how the child should be acting toward you and them.

The preferred parent also has their own complicated issues to deal with when a child resists the other parent. The ears of an overprotective or fearful parent become very big whenever their kids say anything negative about the other parent. This doesn’t escape a child’s notice and they learn you are more attentive than usual if they report something negative about your former spouse. Remember the following:

  • Children sometimes exaggerate
  • Children elaborate on details
  • Children can leave out important details
  • Children may lie if they believe the lie will please a parent

Taking on your child’s complaint and battling over it can be toxic. There are several reasons why but a big one is that the preferred parent could be seen as undermining or even alienating. Tips for the preferred parent include:

  • The sooner and more clearly the preferred parent establishes with the child that contact with the resisted parent is non-negotiable, the sooner you can move past debating the point and begin helping the children to problem solve around how to make their interactions with the resisted parent more positive
  • Problem solving relationship issues is an important skill and children need assistance on how to identify these types of challenges
  • Create positive incentives to help the child work through challenges related to parenting time with the resisted parent. It will help build the child’s self-awareness and provide extra opportunities for parents to do the important work of teaching positive coping skills.
  • Rehearse with the child how to talk about their concerns with the resisted parent
  • Work with the child to practice receiving feedback
  • Help the child to notice positive efforts by the resisted parent
  • Help the child manage their expectations of their time with the resisted parent
  • Preferred parents usually have helpful ideas for the resisted parent about activities the child might enjoy. For example, the preferred parent can describe the activities, games or movies the child has been enjoying in their home. Likely, the resisted parent will not want to hear advice from the other parent but the resisted parent would do well to accept these kinds of ideas as a peace offering.
  • Emphasize to the child that they need to make the best of a difficult situation. Do not suggest to the child to ‘just get through’ time with the other parent.
  • Be clear with the child that while you enjoy talking with them, talking with them about relationships or other problems is not a good idea when they are at that other parent’s house. This can undermine the resisted parent’s relationship building efforts.

Please be aware this is just the tip of the iceberg in a very complex issue. Parties would do well to get some assistance from a parenting expert to help in dealing with these dynamics. Both parents have to understand that their engagement in the relationship building will be important. The family lawyers at Crossroads Law are well versed in dealing with these types of parenting issues and can assist families in getting the proper support. Call today for your free 20-minute consultation.

The information contained in this blog is not legal advice and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject. The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only.