Divorced Parents and Children Who Don't Want to Talk to Them

One of the most difficult cases for me are those where a child, usually somewhere between 10 and 18 years old, doesn't want any kind of relationship with one of their parents.  I see this most often in the case of divorce or separation.  These are complex situations.  Everyone in the family is grieving the loss of the parental unit and sometimes parents pressure children to take sides, while at other times a parent-child relationship was already strained, and the divorce serves as the final break.  My primary aim here is to speak to the parent who has recently separated or divorced and whose child or children don't want to come for visits, won't speak on the phone when you call, and seem sullen or distant if you are able to get time with them.

When I talk to these parents, they are very frustrated.  Often they are angry at their ex for not making the kids visit and feel they are somehow being undermined.  I believe this can and does happen, but in my clinical experience, this is rare.  What is usually the case is that the child is angry.  What I hear from kids when they don't want to see a parent is usually a history of a bad relationship.  In many cases there has been abuse of a verbal or physical nature, but it doesn't have to be that extreme.  It could be as subtle as "We never really connected or got along."  This could be daily butting of heads or just general distance and avoidance in the relationship.  If a child saw a lot of conflict between you and your ex this is often a contributing factor.  If you start dating quickly or remarry and don't include your kids in the process and talk to them about it proactively, this is another time where kids might shut down and shut you out.  They could just be angry at you for getting divorced and blowing up their family.

REPAIRING THE RELATIONSHIP

So what can you do about it?  If I'm being honest, these situations frustrate me as a therapist, because the overwhelming response I get is, "I need your help to make this kid visit me or like me, and I need your help making my ex get with the program."  I can help your child process what is going on and will always encourage reconciliation, but change isn't going to come from them, your ex, or me.  It must start with you.

If your child doesn't want to be around you, that suggests a problem in the relationship.  Forget about blaming your ex for that.  Even if they are contributing to the problem, there's nothing you can do about it.  All you can control is your response to your child in the present.  Often an apology is in order.  You need to see that your actions over the years have likely hurt your child, and you need to be willing to listen to their complaints and offer a sincere apology for your failings and for the fact that a divorce or separation happened.  Again, it's not about your ex's role in the split or the fact that they equally contributed to the arguments- what your kids have seen and decided is that in some way you are the bad one.

Many of you get stuck here because it seems so unfair.  Let me explain.  I see a lot of problems when adults get into "control mode" with teenagers.  There is a time and a place to push obedience, compliance, and respect.  But if your child is a pre-teen or teen, they are out of the stage where control is the primary mode of parenting.  They have moved into a stage where you are preparing them to be responsible adults, guiding them, and developing a relationship that is strong enough to continue after they (or you in this case) leave the home.  When you get divorced, you cannot invoke the parental right of control to make your kid come see you if you have not put in the work to have a good relationship with them.

The logic is simple.  In any other relationship, say with a friend or a coworker, if you had a poor relationship and you did things to upset them, would you insist that they enjoy your company or spend time with you without first trying to talk to them and sort things out?  If you wronged them, you would apologize and try to make things right.  If they decided they didn't want to be around you it would probably be upsetting but you would respect it.  Why are children not afforded this same courtesy?  They too are human beings who can be offended and hurt, and the steps of restitution and restoration still apply.

THE NEXT STEP

Practically this means not forcing them to see you.  Likely they have felt controlled or pushed around already, and making them do things with you doesn't help with this feeling.  Let them know that you will give them time and space.  Send them letters in which you apologize and reach out.  Call once a week.  If possible, arrange to stop by their home for brief visits just to say hello.  Invite them to fun, low pressure outings like a movie or sporting event.  Many kids tell me going out to eat is awkward because you're sitting face to face and pressured to make conversation.  Go watch them play soccer or perform in the school play and say hello afterward.  Go for a walk or bike ride.  Don't give up on your children.

If you have hangups that have hurt your relationship like an addiction, anger management issue, or workaholic tendencies, take the time to work on this in order to show them that you are serious about changing things.

I know this is a tall order.  Some of you bristle at the notion of apologizing and humbling yourself before your children in this way.  It is a risk, because they still have the power to reject you.  In that case, you will at least know that you did all you could to achieve reconciliation, and their bitterness will be their responsibility and burden to bear.  It is a risk you will find rewarding and worth taking.