Resist and Refusal: The Age Old Problem of Kids Not Wanting to Do What They Are Told

For every new discussion or debate in psychological circles, and now in legal circles, the problem that is described in terms that are not necessarily understood by everyday people is a problem that parents understand all too well. Resist and Refuse is the new term by therapists to describe actions by children, who are told by an external source, usually a parent, that they have to do a specific action, and the child refuses or resists doing it. This is not an uncommon problem for parents in many concepts. However, when the action that the child is refusing to do is to see or have contact with one parent, despite a court order to do so, the problem quickly moves beyond the child resisting to one that involves a co-parenting conflict that leads to third-party intervention, such as therapists or attorneys, with the ultimate question: what are we supposed to do with that situation?

There is a divide in therapeutic thinking between one group which believes that children, particularly as they grow older and develop maturity and stronger personal preferences, need to be encouraged to establish independent thinking and personal boundaries. All parents have worried about their child’s friend that they are concerned will be a bad influence on their child, or that tends to lead their child into situations that get the child in trouble. All parents have also experienced the frustration that if they take an authoritarian stance ordering the child that they cannot be friends with that person, it often has the opposite effect of making that person more attractive to the child. A better parenting approach is to have a calm conversation with your child about making good choices, and the consequences of good and bad choices. This is important to do because the goal of parenting should be to have a child develop into a healthy, functioning adult, and encourage the child to make decisions is part of that development. We should start doing that very early on with children. Do they want the red outfit or the blue outfit? Then respect their choice. Do they want carrots or celery? Then respect their choice. Do they want to play soccer or play the piano? Then respect their choice.

Unless that decision involves seeing or not seeing one parent. Then there are many overlapping interests of the parent that can be projected onto the child. I frequently hear a parent proudly tell me that their child is always reluctant to leave them, that they never want to go to the other parent, as proof the parent is preferred or loved more than the other parent, who is not preferred or loved by the child. It may not mean that at all. It usually means that children often live in the present. At the moment, they are with one parent and enjoying that parent. After they transition to the other parent, they are happy and enjoy that moment with the parent.

However, sometimes a child’s resistance to wanting to be with one parent becomes refusal to spend time with the other parent. Once that happens, the parent’s feelings about the other parent leap to the forefront in terms of analysis. The preferred parent is sure that this means that they really are the better parent, and the child’s refusal validates what they have always believed about the other parent – that he or she is not a good person. The nonpreferred parent immediately assumes that the reason why the child is refusing to spend time with that parent is because the other parent is actively alienating the child against the non-preferred parent.

H.L. Mencken is attributed to have said this truism: For every complex problem, there is an answer that is quick, simple, and wrong.

Children who resist and then refuse to spend time with the other parent do so for many reasons which can be complex and varied.

Sometimes the child resists and refuses because the child has always been aligned with one parent, maybe because one parent was more involved in the day to day life of the child, maybe because one parent shares more interests with the child, maybe because one parent has better parenting skills than the other parent. If the resistance is mild, this is an opportunity to educate both parents about the importance of having a healthy relationship with each parent for the child and work with the family to develop the parenting skills necessary to work through difficult times in a parent-child relationship.

Sometimes the child resists and refuses to have a relationship with the other parent because of feeling caught in a loyalty bind: the child believes, sometimes correctly so, that one parent would prefer that the child hates the other parent, and the child wants to please the one parent. This is not always the primary parent. Often children feel very secure in the love and attachment of one parent, but less secure in the relationship with the other parent, and as a result will refuse a relationship with the historically primary parent because the child knows that that parent will always love them, but the love of the other parent needs to be secured through a loyalty choice. Often children in divorce are very aware of the conflict between the parents, and the conflict that the child feels in going between households makes the child want to avoid the conflict by only having contact with one parent or one parent’s household. This is also an opportunity for education of each parent and the child so that the child does not feel obligated to choose between parents or to choose between dealing with the conflict between households and not having to deal with the conflict.

Sometimes it is true that one parent will actively disparage the other parent, under the mistaken belief that they are “just telling the child the truth” about the other parent, and there is actual alienation going on. Most of the time the parent is more subtle about their feelings about the other parent, believing that if they don’t say bad things out loud, the child will not know how they feel, while all the time, the parent is oozing venom and hatred that a child picks up on all too easily.

Sometimes the child resists and refuses to have a relationship with the other parent because there has been trauma to the child from the non-preferred parent. One parent may have an impairment, such as a drug or alcohol addiction which negatively impacted the child, and created trauma, that as the child grows older, and is encouraged to make choices, makes a choice that being with one parent is not healthy for the child. This is especially true if one parent is harsh towards the child, and strongly believes that children should just do what they are told, it doesn’t matter what they think or feel, that they are only children, they do not have a choice, only parents have a choice.

So what is to be done? This is a complex problem, and answers which are simple and quick are usually wrong. The problem with bringing these kinds of complex problems into the court system is that judges are always looking for that quick and simple solution that allows them to resolve one case, and move on to the next case. If you have a child who is refusing to spend time with one parent, a common response is that the child would not be allowed to refuse to go to school, so why should a child be allowed to refuse to see a parent. Just force the issue, and move on. That kind of simple answer can be very traumatizing to children and can create rifts in relationships that are not always able to be fixed. If you think about it, as parents we should be starting very early on to teach children about their own emotional boundaries. At that point, we are destroying a teenager’s confidence in their ability to set and enforce emotional boundaries, because if they can be pressured into an abusive relationship with a parent, they can be pressured into an abusive or sexual relationship when they are dating.

Another quick and simple answer is that if the child has sufficient age and maturity and has a strong refusal that is justified, that the child’s choice should be respected, and nothing should be done to force the child to repair the relationship. This is also not a good solution. Children, even teenagers, do not always have the developmental ability to see the long-term consequences of their actions, including refusing to see a parent. The child may be angry because one parent disciplined a child, and the child didn’t like the discipline, particularly if the discipline involves restriction from friends, and GASP their cell phone which is their lifeline to everything. If the problem as presented is that the child had a reasonably stable relationship with the parent, and is temporarily angry because of a reasonable disciplinary action, then the approach will need to be very different than if the refusal to see one parent is the result of many years of the child feeling belittled or the target of harsh words and discipline.

Because of the complexity of reasons why a child might refuse to have a relationship with one parent, and the developmental stage of the child, there is no one answer that works. It is almost always worth the effort for the child and the nonpreferred parent, and often the preferred parent as well, to engage in family systems therapy to understand the family dynamics that have led to the problem. There is a great deal of value to children in having a relationship with a parent, and in working through problems with a parent-child relationship, if it is possible to do so.

However, all too often, by the time the child gets to the point of refusing to have a relationship with one parent, and the preferred parent comes to an attorney to modify the parenting plan, the breakdown in the relationship is often beyond repair. Sometimes the breakdown in the relationship is justified, which is an extremely loaded word. When one parent has not always had a strong emotional bond with a child in the past, whether because of a parent’s temperament or dysfunction, there comes a point when the child acknowledges that the bond has been strained or nonexistent for a significant amount of time, and wants to create appropriate emotional boundaries as part of the child’s appropriate self-care.

There is a growing minority of therapists who hold the opinion that “the child should have a voice, but the child should never have a choice.” This overly simplistic rule is based on the idea that children don’t always know what is best for them because they lack experience, and that if you work therapeutically with a child long enough, you can replace the child’s thinking with what the therapist considers to be correct thinking. These therapists are very open that they believe the correct thinking is that a child should be forced into having a relationship with a parent, even if that means only that the child is in the same physical location as the parent for a defined period of time, and the child is emotionally damaged by the experience.

Other therapists, however, see forcing a relationship on a child when the child has sufficient maturity to work through the reasons for why the child does not want a relationship, as being traumatic for the child, and causing significant psychological harm. If you are trying to get a teenager to make good choices about who they are dating and appropriate personal boundaries, but override their choices about a relationship with a parent, you are undermining that child’s confidence in their ability to determine how they feel and who they want to be in a relationship with. This easily leads to a child being dominated by others, because they don’t have confidence in their own decision-making about setting personal boundaries for themselves. There are also times when the reason for the divorce is because one parent is emotionally abusive to everyone: the spouse, the children, usually colleagues and friends. The best solution for the spouse when you are in that relationship is to set better boundaries for yourself and get out of the relationship. Yet the same person that we recognize is abusive towards an adult, either physically or emotionally, is the same person that we expect a child, with fewer skills and resources, to deal with on their own, without any skills or adult protection.

The complexities of trying to understand the nature and depth of a child’s refusal to have a relationship with one parent is one of the reasons why I enjoy representing children. There are times when I have had a child be adamant that he or she didn’t want a relationship with a parent, only to have a change in attitude when the immediate disagreement loses intensity with time and being able to redirect the child into being willing to try to build back a relationship is extremely rewarding. It is also extremely rewarding to be able to defend a child’s justified choice as to emotional and physical boundaries with a parent, in a way that protects the child emotionally and allows the child to develop and mature without repeated trauma. Many years ago, I had a 13-year-old boy make an appointment and ride his bike from school. He wanted to suspend his parenting time with his father. After two years of being in therapy, it would be fair to say that the 13-year-old boy was far more emotionally mature than his father. The final straw for the young teen was that his father had forbade him from doing his homework, and took away his books, then took away his shoes so he wouldn’t run away. The father could not imagine why anyone would want to do homework when there were other more manly things to do. In court, the father demanded that the child be forced to spend time with him. The judge asked what it was he thought the judge could do to make that happen – an order that police officers handcuff and force the child into the father’s car? The judge did order therapy, both individual and joint, and at the end of the process, the parenting time was suspended. Ten years later, I ran into the now young man, who was working and going to college. He asked me, as I was leaving the store if I was the same Rose Hubbard who had helped him ten years earlier. As we talked, he thanked me for helping him find a solution so that he did not have to deal with the recurring trauma and emotional abuse that he had endured for many years. This had allowed him to focus on being a kid, doing well in school, and setting adult goals for himself, something that would have been much more difficult if he had had to spend time and emotional energy dealing with repeated trauma. He did not have a relationship with his father, but for him, that was a choice that had served him well. That wouldn’t be the same result for everyone, but it was a good result for him, and one that I was able to contribute to accomplishing.