It is all too common for kids to refuse, at some point, to go to one parent’s house for parenting time. If the issue is abuse, neglect or parent mental illness/substance abuse, this issue requires much more professional involvement (therapists, possibly lawyers). However, there are some steps you and your co-parent can take to address this problem early on before it becomes entrenched: 

Preventive Steps:

  • A strong relationship matters: Remember it is in your child’s best interest to have a strong relationship with both parents. Following a divorce, kids who have strong relationships with both parents have fewer emotional, behavioral and academic problems than peers with strained relationships.
  • Keep your child out of the middle: Don’t make them the messenger, don’t talk negatively about your co-parent with them and don’t make them worry that you are not ok when they are with their other parent. These things can lead kids to feel pressure to side with one parent. 
  • Be mindful of their age/development: You can tell a young child what to do just as you would with other parenting issues. You don’t ask young children if they want to bathe, eat vegetables or wear a coat when it’s cold, why give them a choice in this matter? There are times when you can give them a choice in how things are done, such as, “Would you like to take a bath or a shower?” knowing that what truly matters is that they get clean.  Don’t give them a choice that you can’t actually give them. With teenagers, you need more buy-in because you won’t pick your 14-year-old up and put them in the car like you would with a 4-year-old.

Early Intervention:

  • Try to understand the refusal: It is important that you keep your tone calm and non-blaming when you try to understand why your child doesn’t want to come. Ask open-ended questions with a curious, non-threatening tone. “Help me understand why you don’t want to come today?” Your goal with this question is to really understand their reasoning, not to change their mind!
  • Be respectful of their reasons and feelings: If your teenager can’t go out with friends because she is with you every weekend, then you need to address this issue. Teens need both peer time and parent time. If your 5-year-old doesn’t like your house because he doesn’t have any toys there, help make the place more welcoming. If it’s something you can’t change, then validate their feelings. This doesn’t mean giving in to them, it means really hearing and understanding. “You really miss your mom when you come to my house. I bet that makes you sad.”
  • Involve them in the solution: “What can we do to make this work?” Don’t be pulled into expensive solutions or manipulative bribes, but look deeper.  “I’ll give you an iPhone if you come” will only escalate the issue. Rather, look to meet the feeling-need behind the request. “Sounds like you really miss your friends during the weekend, what if we had a playdate at my house sometimes?” “Sounds like you miss your dad’s funny bedtime stories. Would it help to give him a call before you go to bed?”

Involving Professionals:

  • Child therapists can help: If your child can’t articulate why they don’t want to come or the preventive and early intervention strategies don’t work, then take your child to a therapist. Do this sooner rather than later because it will be easier to solve before the behavior is entrenched. Having a neutral professional can help a child feel safe enough to explore their feelings and experiences.  The therapist will likely work both individually with the child and with both of you to address the issues.
  • Reintegration therapy: If the refusal is severe and long-standing, there is the option for reintegration therapy. This is joint parent-child therapy designed to heal the relationship. Specially trained therapists used to working with high-conflict divorce cases will work with the family system to repair the relationship and re-establish parenting time visits.

It can feel really scary when your child says they don’t want to come to your house. Stay calm and try not to overreact initially so that you can hear what your child is telling you. Work with your co-parent and/or professionals to more effectively address the root cause of the refusal. Your relationship with your child is so important to both of you that it’s worth the time and energy to work through this painful phase.