Despite our best efforts to maintain a close relationship with our children, there are times when a rupture occurs. The reasons for this vary. They include distress after separation, a parent being absent for a period of time, legitimate reasons for no contact (violence, abuse, incarceration and so on), relocation, and a developmentally common desire to exercise personal choice and freedom.
All parents are familiar with the notion of children sometimes having a slightly easier or more natural connection with one parent or the other. Indeed, preferences can change over the course of time. Sayings such as: “daddy’s little girl”, “mini-me”, “chip off the old block” and “mumma’s boy” are predicated on this natural affinity. Whilst this is a broadly accepted concept within intact families, such nomenclatures can become problematic in the post-separation landscape.
The notion that a child can experience and then express a preferred alliance can be misinterpreted as having a malevolent genesis. In recent years, this expressed preference in adolescence has played out in the post-separation space as labelling the favoured parent as “alienating”. Whilst this might be the case in some instances, it is quite possible this phenomenon is a normal or not-unexpected part of maturation. Professionals working in this context will refer to adolescents who express and then act on their wish to spend more or less time with one of their parents, as young people who are “voting with their feet”. It is not necessarily associated with the depth of love the child has for that parent.
It is expected that the parent who might now have their time with their adolescent reduced, to feel rejected, hurt, angry and frustrated. They might also feel that the adolescent has been unduly influenced by the other parent. They will, most likely, take it personally.
What should the so-called “not favoured” parent do in such instances? At the outset, my view is that the most unhelpful response is to try and insist that the adolescent spend the court ordered or parenting plan agreed upon time with them. This invariably consolidates the young person’s decision, and they might decide not to spend any time with that parent.
It is also important to recognise that it is unreasonable and often difficult to physically force a young person to be somewhere they do not want to be. And before anyone says, well, if they don’t want to school, that’s too bad, they have to go, the fact is that many young people simply refuse to attend school and forcing them to do so, is incredibly difficult.
A more helpful response is to recognise that “this is not about YOU”; it is about your child’s views and wishes. As such, I have found a measured approach that recognises that an adolescent ought to be afforded increasing levels of autonomy, is more helpful.
Specifically, be appreciative of any “crumbs” the adolescent gives (in terms of engagement); do not then expect them to give the “entire loaf” straight away. That is, if the young person agrees to say, a two hour visit, do not pressure them to commence weekend visits. Be patient and learn to tolerate uncertainty. Do not display or communicate any messages around being “the victim”. Do not sulk or pout. Do not cut your nose off to spite your face: telling your child that their time with you must align with orders until they are 18 years old, or you do not wish to see them at all, is tantamount to giving the message: my love for you is conditional upon you doing and being how I want you to do and be. Such attitudes do not consider the importance of adolescent individuation, nor do they communicate to your child that you seek happiness and contentment for them throughout all the stages of their life.
Seek advice from an experienced practitioner to guide you through. Good luck!