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Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. Headshot

Sometimes a Child's Refusal to Go With You Is a Test

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For some children, divorce calls into question the very nature of parental love. The child may think to himself, "If my parents can decide they don't love each other anymore, maybe they can stop loving me. If they can decide they don't want to live together anymore, maybe they also don't really want to live with me."

Those questions are too scary to ask directly, so kids may set up a "test" instead. They refuse to spend time with the parent or to go to the other parent's home. Then they watch what their parent does next.

If such a test is the hidden reason for the refusal (and not an indication that something is seriously amiss in one house or the other), it's very important that the "rejected" parent both reassure and insist on time together. How you handle the situation, as much as what you say, will determine if you pass the test.

What to do:

1. Focus on the child's feelings when talking with her. Don't respond with anger, guilt or disappointment in the child. No one ever passed a test in a relationship by being defensive or angry.

2. Remember your child is scared, not stubborn or defiant or trying to give you a hard time by saying he doesn't want to go with you. Fear often looks like anger or withdrawal. Kids, being kids, don't always know how to communicate their fears so they act them out.

3. Sit down with your child and calmly suggest that sometimes when people are worried about a relationship, they protect themselves by staying away. It's a normal thing to do but, unfortunately, it only makes the problem worse.

Ask her if she is at all worried about how you feel about her or if you really want to spend time with her. Be as calm and concerned as you know how to be.

The child may not be willing or able to acknowledge the issue. That's okay. It's enough that she knows that you know it is sometimes a worry among kids of divorce. If she does admit to worries, listen respectfully and reassure as best you can.

4. Let your child know that you want the two of you to really know about each other and understand each other. That can only happen if you get together as often as you can. Reassure your child that time with him isn't an inconvenience or a bother, even though at times you may be stressed or distracted by other things.

5. Most important: Walk your talk. Arrange your life so that time together includes genuine together time. Make sure there are opportunities to talk about important things, not just chores and arrangements for rides or what's for dinner. Don't assume your child knows you love him. Tell him so. Finally, find some activities you both enjoy. They don't have to cost money. They do have to cost your time.