Visitation: When Your Child Doesn't Want to Go

by Brette McWhorter Sember

little girl looking apprehensiveIt happens in every family at one time or another. You have a parenting schedule in place that seems to be working pretty well with everyone's schedules. And then one day, your child simply refuses to follow it.

Most often this is a refusal to go on visitation with the nonresidential parent. It can be baffling and upsetting for both parents when this happens. The nonresidential parent feels hurt and betrayed and a bit angry, too. He or she begins to wonder if the other parent somehow put the child up to this.

The residential parent feels frustrated and worried. He or she wonders if there’s something going on at the other house he or she is unaware of. And both parents are hit with a sudden disruption of the schedule they had adjusted to.

So what do you do when your child won't go? The first thing to remember is that while it's always important to listen to your child's feelings and opinions, spending time with the nonresidential parent is not optional. Your child doesn't get to pick and choose when she is going to go or what circumstances will gain his approval. There are days when kids don't want to go to school, but you don't let your child stay home on those days. Similarly, you can't let your child decide to just skip visitation.

Visitation is more than just a schedule. It is a connection to both parents. And continuing to have a connection with both parents is absolutely essential for your child. Children are not in charge of visitation. Parents are. Children's opinions are important, but not decisive. Children are not old enough or mature enough to hold the authority to decide when and if visitation happens. If you give your child that authority you will confuse and overwhelm him. Your child wants and needs to know that both parents are an unconditional part of his or her life.

Now that being said, there can be real problems with visitation that lead to a child's refusal to go. Talk to your child and find out why he doesn't want to go. Often it's just a general annoyance with the other parent or a vague sense of dissatisfaction. This isn't good news, but it isn't bad news either. You have to remember that it will pass.

If your child has solid complaints about visitation, suggest that she discuss them with the other parent. If your child isn't able to verbalize this, then it's ok for you to convey the message, but you must remember that children's perceptions of things may be skewed. A complaint of "Dad is always working and never spends any time with me" might in reality turn out to be a case of where Dad had one project he had to finish up last Sunday night and so could not play video games.

If there is a real complaint about visitation, it's important to remember that this problem exists between the child and the parent. You really should not get involved unless it is a dangerous situation. Part of having a real parent-child relationship is working out problems together.

If your child refuses to go on a scheduled visitation and there is no real reason for the refusal, you and the other parent must present a united front. Insist together that there is no other option.

If the residential parent gives in, he or she becomes an accomplice, making the other parent angry and proving to the child that he or she does not really respect the other parent's role. If the nonresidential parent gives in, this is a sign to the child that he or she doesn't really care and is seen by the residential parent as yet another failure.

The best plan is to work together to get your child to go. If your child refused to get out of bed to go to school, you would find a way to make him go. You've got to do the same in this situation.

If your child is a teen, she may need more control over visitation than younger children are allowed, however this does not mean that she can write the other parent out of her life. Teens need to feel some control over their lives, and need time for school, jobs, friends, and activities, but they also do desperately need real connections with both parents.

It is upsetting for everyone involved when a child refuses to go on visitation, but if both parents insist together that there is no choice, then no one will be the villain and your child will have to cope with the reality of the situation.

Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of:

Learn more about Brette on her web site.

Copyright © Brette McWhorter Sember. Permission to republish granted to, LLC.