Sally O'Reilly, our Family Psychology Expert, explains why your child may not wish to speak to their other parent.
I was approached recently by a worried separated parent...
The worry? This parent, let's call them Pat,* was worried that their child refused to communicate, meet, stay with or otherwise engage with their ex. This concerned them, and so wanted me to work with the child, who is barely a teen. A reasonable, caring request.
When this happens, I always ask why the parent wants me to work with their child. It might seem too obvious an answer to some - but I've learned that there can be hugely diverse answers.
It's often that they wanted their child to have a relationship with their other parent. They fear that if they don't, that they might regret it "for the rest of their life". That family is more important than anything, who else could their child rely on for future support? Especially if something happens to them. Well, yes! It's a quandary for sure. My mind races with questions -
- When did they separate?
- Why did they separate?
- How do the parents get on?
- How long were they together?
- How far apart do they live?
- Do either have a new partner and has the child met them?
- Are they ill or aware that there is a loss coming?
- Do they and the child have social supports?
- Are their own family intact or perhaps enmeshed?
- Does the child have any special needs?
- What's the ideal outcome here?
- Why doesn't the child want to engage with the ex?
- What DOES the CHILD want?
- Has she been consulted about coming to see me?
The last four are the key questions for me. The rest is quite secondary - important yes, but not for now.
- Pat's ideal outcome is that the child has a healthy relationship with her other parent. This is encouraging in one sense. Pat alluded to a break of trust, and so wanting to nurture and support a loving bond between their daughter and their ex is admirable and points to good boundaries. That must have taken some very hard, painful work...
- The daughter, on the other hand, has clearly expressed that she doesn't want to engage with the other parent. Why? She just doesn't want to. She gets anxious, doesn't sleep, cries, has temper outbursts or withdraws whenever access days come. She is adamant. She doesn't want to be near them.
- What does she want? She wants to stay home, master her bike, train her dog, play with her friends - even though they have their fights. All normal. I'm mindful that a lot of kids that age simply don't want to have their routine interrupted, particularly so if there are ASD issues for example, but that may not be what's going on. Perhaps she just wants to stay with her friends and do cool stuff - going away for a weekend to another adult's house isn't exactly awesome fun... think of what you might miss!
- But if the child enjoys travelling and staying with other relatives and friends... Hmmm. Was there a pattern of abuse? There is often hesitation when I ask this question. I know it's deeply personal. We are more aware now, thankfully, of the different forms abuse can take. I've heard people express discomfort around an ex's style of communication - there was emotional blackmail, game playing, even coercion.
Pat offered up examples of recent behaviour that for me, were red flags - I mention 2 below. And, I'm thinking Pat maybe acted as a buffer while they were together and daughter just can't or won't deal with this behaviour by herself. Not if there's a safer, easier option - ie, to stay the hell away. Maybe she's afraid. Fear, as Sherlock Holmes said, is wisdom in the face of danger.
Has the daughter been consulted?
No. She hasn't. Pat thought that if the session were set up she'd toe the line and come along - that she might secretly want to "fix" things too. That's a very good point. Sometimes kids refuse to visit because they don't want to hurt the feelings of the parent who has custody. Particularly so if the child knows that there was infidelity or something else painful.
Often children feel responsible for the break-up - even amicable break-ups, and so they feel it's their job to mind and align with one parent over the other. As adults, we must be mindful of their world view and adjust accordingly, together if possible, in a joint effort to protect the child from this significant stress.
The child's possible perspective:
So, if we think about this situation as a 12-year-old. You're 12, you have two parents but they live a few miles apart. You really like one, the other not so much, for now. You know that there have been lies and coercion in the home (because kids know, they are practically telepathic) and you know that the parent you're living with keeps you safe and feeds you and takes you away for little fun trips to friends and family. You can talk to this parent, you've told them stuff about your friends, they help you with your hobbies and let you try new things. This is an adult you can trust.
So, you've confided in them that you don't want to see the other parent anymore. And their reaction is to go and make an appointment so you can be "fixed" enough to spend time with someone even though you clearly told them you don't want to. Even though the other parent didn't show up loads of times or was late, or forgot your birthday but blamed you for not reminding them.
What might the child be thinking and learning?
Was this trusted parent now turning into another adult who was going to just blame them and not listen? Am I not valued anywhere? Are we supposed to spend time with people we don't like or feel safe around just because they're related to us? Is yet another decision going to be made without my input? Am I not worthy of choice? Do I not deserve healthy boundaries and love? What's wrong with me?
Well, you see where I'm going here.
And so, I frequently refuse to make an appointment and explain why. I won't work with a child unless they've been consulted about it. I'm all about consent.
The wording would be key - would she like to chat to someone outside the family and friends about the separation or anything she's ever worried about? There's nothing wrong with her, it's not to "fix" anything, it's not to make her do anything. It's just an extra person and place and it's something a lot of kids and grown-ups do when there've been changes in their life. It might even be fun! It's their choice.
A checklist for parents in this situation:
- Have you had a conversation with your child about what they want, letting them know that it's their right to be safe and heard?
- You might very well find that once given a choice, the child might choose to visit - because it becomes their choice, not a rule. This is a common outcome.
- Know that if your ex was abusive to you, they probably will be to your child, one way or another - either directly, or by modelling it with a new partner.
- Another consideration is Parental Alienation. You might be accused of this if you are perceived to be "keeping" your child away when in fact you are protecting them. I wouldn't want someone to fall foul of a court order for example. If you are seen to have tried, that's a good thing. Get legal advice. A therapist isn't enough, no matter how well informed.
- Always keep a record of every contact you have with your child, a mental health/health professional, the Gardaí and your ex. We don't remember things as clearly as we think.
- Remember that family is NOT everything. And it's Ok to not engage with them (whatever your age).
- Remember that your child will grow up and will choose for themselves.
- Remember that there is no evidence to suggest that a child needs two parents in order to grow into a well-balanced adult.
There are no sure ways of knowing why a child thinks or does what they do. But one thing I know absolutely - a child's safety is paramount, and children must be heard. There's always a reason for a child's avoidance of a parent - it could be simple and benign. But it could be complex and dark.
Some gentle exploration and a shifted perspective either by yourself or with the assistance of a friend and/or trained professional will probably lead you to the answers you need to move forward - in whatever way. We owe it to them to do our best to find that way.
Thanks for reading - and see you again next month!
*All identifying details have been changed so as to protect the caller.