Written by Monica Borschel, Ph. D., and Family Law Attorney Akilah Harris, Esq.
Children resist their parents for many reasons. Sometimes, they might feel like they need to protect the other parent, are overly stressed, are rebellious, feel abandoned, or have feelings of shame. Sometimes, when the parents cannot effectively co-parent, one parent will actively work to turn the child against the other parent. However, it should never be assumed that a child is resisting due to parental alienation. Accusing the other parent of parental alienation can result in more conflict and stress for the child.
When a child has been separated from one parent for too long, they can also resist. The child might feel like they don’t know what to say or how to act. The child might feel guilty or ashamed for not maintaining contact. They might also feel they need to protect the other parent’s feelings. Children in these situations often feel awkward around the resisting parent. They avoid more feelings of awkwardness and shame; they continue to avoid the resisting parent. For this reason, the longer the child is kept away, the worse turmoil the child is in and the more likely they are to resist.
Reunification coaching and therapy find strategies and solutions to family conflicts due to separation or resist/refuse dynamics. Reunification helps the child find their voice, and the parents learn to put the child’s best interest first. It often includes the repair of any damage to the relationships.
Unless there is abuse, it is always in the child’s best interest to have a secure relationship with both parents. Reunification can also help the family by speaking to social workers, therapists, and family law workers. A team can be helpful when the family struggles with divorce or conflict. A family lawyer is an integral part of the team as they can protect the rights of the parents and children.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if your child is resisting you or the other parent:
- What are my emotions and reactions regarding the other parent? Sometimes, when people go through a separation or a divorce, they are afraid or angry at the other parent. Children are attuned to their parents and often feel what their parents are feeling. If you are angry or fearful of the other parent, your child might also be. Do your best not to react negatively towards your ex-partner in front of your children.
- What kinds of stress is your child going through? If your child has had to adapt to a new lifestyle because of the separation, they might be stressed. Did your child have to move homes or schools? If so, they might miss their old friends, teachers, and classmates. Allow them some time to adapt and to speak about their feelings. Are they going through more changes than they are ready for?
- Does your child have a routine and a schedule? Your child needs predictability to feel safe. Your child needs to know the rules and consequences in both homes. They also need to know when they will see the other parent. Too much unpredictability leads to chaos, which can lead your family to be in a state of chronic stress. Predictability is also crucial around emotional responses of the parents. The children will suffer if either parent is hot or cold or has unpredictable consequences.
- Is one parent trying to turn the child against the other parent? Saying negative things about the other parent to your child will have dire consequences. When your child hears negative things about the other parent, they will internalize that against themselves. Remember, your child is half you and half the other parent. If there is something you don’t like about the other parent, the child will also think that you don’t like that about them.
- Does your child have choices? If your child feels like they are overly controlled, they will rebel. Your child needs to understand why decisions have been made. They also need to have some choice in their life. If a court order exists, the child cannot refuse access to the other parent. If they refuse access, it is essential to find out why. If your child is safe in both homes, help them to feel that safety. Also, tell your child you are okay while they are away so they don’t worry about you. Let them know you want them to have fun at the other parent’s home. Your child must understand that it is okay to love both parents so they are not caught in loyalty conflicts.
- Does your child feel abandoned? Abandonment can be a difficult thing to address. Often, children are unaware that they feel abandoned. Instead, they might feel worthless or unloveable. It is common for children to feel abandoned in divorce or paternity cases, especially if another family is involved. Tell your child that no one will ever take their place. Also, inform them that you might have left the marriage but did not leave the child.
Dr. Monica Borschel, Ph.D. Divorce and Trauma Recovery Coach
Monica is originally from Salt Lake City, Utah. She later moved to New York City, earning her master’s in clinical psychology from Columbia University. She then pursued her Doctorate in Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. Her training and qualifications include certifications in Brainspotting and High Conflict Coaching.