Janet Langjahr, a divorce and family lawyer who authors the Florida Divorce Law Blog recently cited an article in the Northwest Florida Daily News about a 12-year-old girl arrested for assaulting her father. The cause of her anger? Dad was trying to force her to be with him during court ordered parenting time. Not sure who was in the wrong…dad for forcing or daughter for striking.
I represent a client with similar issues. The kids are angry with mom about the fact that she had (and is having) an affair with the man across the street. The kids have demanded that she stop seeing him, but mom refuses, citing “adult privilege.” It hasn’t been pretty, but my client has struggled with what he should do to encourage on ongoing relationship between the kids and mom.
According to Brette McWhorter Sember, author of How to Parent with Your Ex:
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.
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.
In cases where there is an extended period of disassociation, reunification therapy may be the only option that will work. You can learn more about this process through Mary Ann Aronsohn’s post on Parental Reunification Therapy.
In my opinion, clients find themselves in dangerous territory when children refuse to spend time with the other parent. They can’t win.
If they force the parenting time, the kids may do the same thing to them, or run away, or hurt themselves – they often claim. Sounds silly, but I’ve had a judge issue a decision based upon a young teen’s threat to run away if she didn’t get her way. With due respect, probably not the right basis to make a custody determination, but my point is that these types of threats may be treated seriously by the judge.
If they don’t force the time, the other parent can easily argue that they enabled parental alienation, which may provide a basis for the court to sanction the “innocent” parent by denying custody.
Personally, any parent who simply puts their hands in the air and says “I don’t know what to do” better figure out a solution…fast. Professionals are here to help. The “I tried” argument doesn’t usually stick with the Court. It boils down to the fact that kids are kids and don’t rule the roost. Judges expect a certain level of “parenting,” which includes getting children to do the things they don’t want to – like dishes, homework, and, sometimes, spending time with the other parent.