Smart Parenting During and After Divorce: What to Do When the Other Parent Speaks Negatively About You to Your Child (page 3)

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on May 7, 2010

Don't Wait—Act Now

In my experience, the biggest mistake that people make when a parent is rejected is to wait for children "to come around." People mistakenly assume that if time goes by, children will forgive and forget. While this might happen in a percentage of cases, it is a very small percentage. Instead, children start to feel guilty about not visiting a parent. They worry that they will be scolded or made to feel bad that they didn't visit. Even young children know that they are disappointing and upsetting a parent they refuse to see. These bad feelings increase the child's motivation to avoid visitation, because they assume that the visit will be unpleasant or, at best, uncomfortable.

Children know that when they are not getting along well with a parent, the most anyone will force them to visit is once a week, so if they can convince the preferred parent to let them off the hook, they will not have to deal with the issue for a week. For most children, a week's reprieve from not having to face an uncomfortable circumstance is like being able to skip homework for a week and not get in trouble for it. There is generally no consequence to a child skipping visitation, because people can see that they are emotionally upset. It's natural to want to alleviate our children's emotional pain, so we are more likely to give in to children's requests for "a little more time" to forgive Mom or Dad.

As more time goes by, children have to become more creative with the excuses they give for not wanting to go on a visit, and as a result, emotions in the child run hotter, refusals become stronger, and the child becomes more upset, thus protesting more than ever against seeing the rejected parent. To make matters worse, while all of this is going on, Mom is blaming Dad for the lapse in visitation while Dad is blaming Mom; and this conflict is usually very obvious to the child, who in a very unhealthy way sees how the adults around him are so powerfully affected by his behavior.

Watching this sequence of events happen thousands of times has convinced me that when children and parents have lapses in their relationships, it is imperative that the child not be permitted to refuse to visit, and that both parents should make efforts to get that child into counseling with a therapist who understands the phenomenon and how to deal with it.

Unfortunately, most therapists do not know how to deal with it, and, after a few weak attempts at trying to restructure the relationship, conclude that it's best not to force visitation but instead to wait until the child gets older and comes looking for a relationship. This reasoning makes sense to a lot of people, but it does not make sense to me. We do not permit a child to stay home from school simply because she doesn't want to go. We do not permit a child to refuse to go to the doctor when he needs medical treatment. We do not permit a child to go to bed without brushing her teeth simply because the child "doesn't like the way it feels."

Yet, we are, in case after case of visitation refusal, allowing children to "divorce" a parent simply because it does not "feel right." Perhaps it is too difficult to believe that children can reject a parent forever. Perhaps it is because we believe that if a child does not want to see a parent, it must be for a good reason.

More likely, it is because children see the two most important people in their lives hate each other, abandon each other, and proclaim how much better life is when we rid ourselves of the people who made us so unhappy. Children from high-conflict divorce see poor interpersonal problem solving, poor conflict resolution, motivation for revenge, disrespect, antagonism, even violence. Why would it be so unusual for children to compartmentalize all of the anger they have over the breakup of their family and merely eliminate half the source of their disappointment? Parents who permit their children to reject the other parent should prepare to receive the same treatment themselves.

When you teach a child to hate, you cannot control who the targets of that hatred ultimately become. Sometimes, in the most distressing of all outcomes, we find that children whose hatred and rage originate in family conflict go outside of their families, to their schoolmates and to strangers, to act it out, the results of which are ultimately communicated in the news media.

Quick Tips

  • As a general rule, the fewer questions you ask a child, the more the child will tell you.
  • Do not quiz your children about what they ate at the co-parent's house. If you think your child is being deprived of proper nutrition, speak to the co-parent directly.
    Do not ask your child to reveal the whereabouts of possessions that you are looking to retrieve from the co-parent's house.
  •  If your child asks you questions about the co-parent's life or about the specifics of your divorce, just say, "That's grown-up talk. That's not something we can discuss."
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