During and after divorce, and often leading up to it, the family system is stressed. Parents and children cope with this stress in many different ways, some adaptive and others very dysfunctional. If your child is resisting or refusing to spend time with you, it is not only heartbreaking, but also confusing. Legal and mental health professionals use the term Resist/Refuse Dynamic (RRD) to describe these cases. Unfortunately, there has been an increase in the number of these cases in the court system (Drozd, 2020).
Your gut-wrenching response to your child’s resistance or outright refusal to see you can also have an impact on the dynamic. Often, parents are shocked and dismayed by this problem, also referred to as Parent Child Contact Problems (PCCP). The difficulty in maintaining a positive, nurturing stance while being rejected by your own child is hard to overcome.
Getting clarity as to the possible factors involved in creating this dynamic, or problem, is essential to knowing how to respond as the parent who has been rejected. It may seem easiest and most logical to point a finger at your ex, or soon to be ex. Though the other parent (the preferred parent) may have some influence in this problem, there are usually multiple factors that should be considered to get an accurate assessment of your unique family/parent/child dynamic.
Factors which may play a part in the development of the resist/refuse dynamic are varied. A good treatment team will investigate these, including but not limited to the temperament and personality of the child, previous trauma or adverse childhood experiences, familial interpersonal violence (verbal/physical), parental substance abuse or mental health issues, and parenting problems. The latter category would include parenting issues such as alienating behaviors as well as misattuned parenting.
The progression and intensity of the RRD is best understood on a continuum. Identify where your child’s behavior fits into this continuum. gaining insight as to what might have happened in your family, with your child.
Positive Parent-Child Relationships – The child desires relationships with both parents. Parents are supportive of relationship with each parent.
Affinity – The child feels closer to one parent, and still wants contact with the other parent. Possible reasons for an affinity include temperament, age, gender, common interests, and can change over time.
Allied – The child consistently prefers one parent over the other and may resist contact. The child does not completely reject the other parent but has ambivalence about contact. Some causes include high conflict in the marriage, the child feeling they need to take sides, that one parent may need their loyalty or support.
Estranged – “Realistic Estrangement” – The child either rejects one parent or allows contact with very rigid guidelines and limits. The child appears angry at the estranged parent or exhibits a “phobic” reaction to that parent. The child often demonstrates separation anxiety when separated from the preferred parent. Some possible causes include exposure to family violence, abuse/neglect, parental substance abuse. Differs from alienation in that the estrangement is based on actual experiences and can be seen as an adaptive strategy. Trauma treatment must occur prior to addressing the RRD in these cases.
Alienated – “Pure Alienation” – Different from estrangement in that there is an absence of abuse/neglect. The child’s negative reaction to the rejected parent does not appear to be warranted by the totality of the child’s actual experience of that parent. The child has a distorted perception of the rejected parent and vilifies that parent. Causes may include severely high conflict divorce, and indirect or direct contribution on the part of the favored parent to the child’s view of the rejected parent.
With clarity about the stage of PCCP with your child, you can take more appropriate and effective action. Step one would be to find professionals who specialize in RRD or PCCP. A good treatment team will focus on the family system, rather than on the child and rejected parent alone. They will begin by gathering information to assist in assessment of the dynamic. It may take court involvement to prompt the “preferred” or “favored” parent to engage in treatment, but not always.
The quality of your divorce has a significant impact on your child’s adjustment post-divorce. Choose a process that encourages the two of you to communicate and make decisions together. Collaborative Divorce is a process that supports the children and both parents. With the support of a professional team, you will learn better problem-solving skills, to communicate effectively, and to be co-parents for your children for the remainder of their lives.