Children and divorce – more often than not an explosive combination. In my practice I’m consulted from time to time in cases where a child refuses to visit the non-primary caregiver – the “other parent” so to speak. And generally, this creates problems on all sides: The primary caregiver is usually torn between forcing the child to go and simultaneously allowing them to stay so as to not see them so distressed; the “other parent” may feel hurt and confused about why the child does not want to spend time with them and the child self may feel guilty at not wanting to go and ashamed to have the “other parent” know that they feel this way.
It is vitally important that parents work together in trying to find a solution to this problem. Here are some of the things you can try to do when your child doesn’t want to visit:
- Arrange for a “neutral switch” – where one parent drops the child off at school or at an event and the other parent then picks them up again afterwards. In this way you avoid the tricky situation where it may feel like one parent is “taking the child away” from the other.
- Don’t say negative things about other parent. By their very natures children tune into and try to please the parent they are with. When you say negative things about the other parent your child will feel as if they are being disloyal to you by wanting to be with the the other parent. We’re not expecting you to lavish the other parent with praise, but at least aim to be neutral about them in front of your child.
- Don’t let the child think you are pining for them while they are away. It’s okay to let them know that you miss them a little, but do not let them think that you are sad and depressed without them (even if it’s true!).
- Don’t make your child the go-between. Communicate directly with your ex and do not expect your child to carry messages between the two of you – and remember to keep any communication civil, at least in front of your child .
- Check in with your child. Schedule calls at a regular, predicable, pre-arranged time when your child is with the other parent. An ideal time would be to call an hour or so before bed-time to say goodnight and to let the child know that you are okay and to enable the other parent to them distract them with a bubble bath or bedtime story.
- The visiting parent should be actively involved with child while they are there. So often when I ask a child why they do not want to visit the other parent, their main complaint is: “Because it’s boring”. Sure, children may become bored at home as well, but at least the can then turn to their own toys or friends or hobbies o keep them busy, but this is usually not the case when visiting the the other parent. Be sure to plan fun and exciting activities with your kids when they come to visit – it need not be anything lavish, but play ball with them in the backyard or read a story together or play games or cards or with older children.
- Try to create space of their own for your child. Often it is moving from a familiar, comfortable environment to a less-familiar environment that scares children off visiting. By creating a space that is their you can help your child feel more at home when they visit you.
- Keep rules and routines similar at both homes. What children need most is continuity – knowing what to expect will help them feel comfortable. Also, don’t try to bribe them into visiting or staying with treats (if these are generally not allowed) or by bending the rules – this will only make the child feel guilty & ashamed later. Try not to have the child miss out on activities when they are visiting you. For instance, if they have been selected to play in a sports team try your best to get them to practices and games on the weekends that they are with you.
- Be patient, encouraging and understanding. Not wanting to visit is often a sign that a child is still trying to adjust after the divorce and does not mean that the child does not want to be with the other parent. Let the child know that you want to be with him, but do not let him think that you angry with him for not wanting to visit.
- Take your child’s age into account. For very young children, overnight stays can be very long and they might miss their primary caregiver terribly as the day draws to close. You may want to negotiate more day-time visits with the other parent, but then allow the child to sleep at home until he is more comfortable with sleeping out. Teens again would often rather hang out with their friends than spend time with either of their parents. Plan your time together in a way that also allows your child to spend time with his friends or perhaps consider allowing your child’s friends to also sleep over at your house on visitation weekends.
- Be active in trying to make your child’s visits with the other parent enjoyable. Remember you might dislike your ex, but this is not really about either of you. It’s about your child and their relationship with their other parent.
- If your child is finding visitations or separating from the primary caregiver very difficult, you might need to let the child speak to a professional who can lend an ear to their troubles and help them adjust to changes after the divorce in a neutral and objective way.
Anel Annandale is a prominent Educational Psychologist with a passion for early childhood development and a special interest in neuropsychology.
She is experienced in the field and has established herself as an expert, often appearing on television shows such as Exspresso. She is also available as a guest speaker at relevant events and functions.