Visitation Refusal: Realistic Response, Allied, or Alienation
November 15, 2015
You have all had cases wherein a child of divorce refuses to visit or have meaningful contact with one parent. Sometimes the reasons are obvious. (Perhaps the child is the victim of abuse.) Other times there doesn’t appear to be a logical reason for refusing visitation. Too often, the parents provide conflicting explanations for the child’s refusal to see one parent. The parent whom the child refuses to see often accuses the aligned parent of poisoning the mind of the child. The aligned parent asserts that there are valid reasons for the child to refuse to visitation and defends the child’s behavior as healthy, given the alleged inappropriate behavior of the other parent. As in all child custody conflicts, dichotomous thinking does not provide an accurate understanding of a particular set of behaviors. Rather, looking at a continuum from a healthy relationship between child and parent all the way to a completely cut off relationship will yield the complexity of factors that lead to the child refusing visitation.
A Deeper Look at Child Custody Issues Regarding Visitation Refusal
In 1987, Richard Gardner wrote a book attempting to explain one possible dynamic that may lead to a child refusing visitation. His theory, Parental Alienation Syndrome, was initially defined as “… a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with depreciation and criticism of a parent-denigration that is unjustified and/or exaggerated (p. 67-68).” Dr. Gardner went on to say that:
The concept of parental alienation syndrome includes the brainwashing component, but it is much more inclusive. It includes not only conscious but subconscious and unconscious factors within the programming parent that contribute to the child’s alienation from the other. Furthermore (and this is extremely important), it includes factors that arise within the child-independent of the parental contributions- that play a role in the development of the syndrome. In addition, situational factors may contribute, i.e., factors that exist in the family and the environment that may play a role in bringing about the disorder (p. 68).
Richard Gardner’s theories focused on a suspected parent who engaged in a campaign to denigrate the other parent in the eyes of the child as well as on specific psychological vulnerabilities in the child, making them susceptible to the denigrating messages. Although he acknowledged other external influences, he remained focused on a joining together of a vulnerable child and an alienating parent.
In 2001, Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston wrote an article for the Family Court Review that reformulated the theories of John Gardner and others, and attempted to view child refusal in a way that was subject to scientific inquiry. The new theory would direct future research to clarify the underlying dynamics involved in situations where children refuse visitation. The authors wrote:
This formulation proposes to focus on the alienated child rather than on parental alienation. An alienated child is defined here as one who expresses, freely and persistently, unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection, and/or fear) toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent. From this viewpoint, the pernicious behaviors of a “programming” parent are no longer the starting point. Rather, the problem of the alienated child begins with a primary focus on the child, his or her observable behaviors, and parent-child relationships. This objective and neutral focus enables the professionals involved in the custody dispute to consider whether the child fits the definition of an alienated child and, if so, to use a more inclusive framework for assessing why the child is now rejecting a parent and refusing contact (p. 251).
Kelly and Johnston (2001) looked at many factors why children refuse visitation. They categorized those factors as follows:
Resistance rooted in normal developmental processes (e.g., normal separation anxieties in the very young child), resistance rooted primarily in the high-conflict marriage and divorce (e.g., fear or inability to cope with the high-conflict transition), resistance in response to a parent’s parenting style (e.g., rigidity, anger, or insensitivity to the child), resistance arising from the child’s concern about an emotionally fragile custodial parent (e.g., fear of leaving the parent alone), and resistance arising from the remarriage of a parent (e.g., behaviors of the parent or stepparent that alter willingness to visit (p. 251).
Kelly and Johnston (2001) described a relationship continuum between children and their parents that occurs post-separation or divorce. Although their focus was on children of separation and divorce, the continuum they describe also exists in the relationship between children and their parents in intact families.
On one end of the spectrum, described by Kelly and Johnston (2001), is a Positive Relationship with both parents. These children enjoy spending time and look forward to seeing each of their parents. The next step on the continuum is the child who has an Affinity with one parent. This child wants a relationship with both parents. Kelly and Johnston wrote about this type of parent child relationship: “By reason of temperament, gender, age, shared interests, sibling preferences of parents, and parenting practices, these children feel much closer to one parent than the other (p. 252).” This affinity can change from parent to parent over time. The third step on the continuum is the Allied children. Children that are allied have a consistent preference for one parent over the other. Although these children prefer time with one parent, they rarely cut off contact with the other parent. Kelly and Johnston described the children at this step as expressing ambivalence about the parent they are not allied with. The child in this type of parent-child relationship often expresses, “… anger, sadness, and love, as well as resistance to contact (p. 252).”
Kelly and Johnston’s (2001) last two steps on the continuum describe relationships between a child and a parent that are severely disrupted. The first type of relationship in this category is labeled the Estranged children. These children are estranged from one of their parents due to inappropriate behavior from their parent. The behaviors can include verbal or physical abuse or neglect. Kelly and Johnston wrote regarding the estranged children, “Among this group of children who are estranged as a cumulative result of observing repeated violence or explosive outbursts of a parent during the marriage or after separation, or who were themselves the target of violence and abusive behavior from this parent (p. 253).” They added: “Often, they can only feel safe enough to reject the violent or abusive parent after the separation (p. 253).” The last step, described as the Alienated Child, describes the child who rejects a parent, “…stridently and without apparent guilt or ambivalence (p. 254).” Kelly and Johnston wrote:
For the most part, these rejected parents fall within the broad range of “marginal” to “good enough,” and sometimes “better” parents, who have no history of physical or emotional abuse of the child. Although there may be some kernel of truth to the child’s complaints and allegations about the rejected parent, the child’s grossly negative views and feelings are significantly distorted and exaggerated reactions (p. 254).
Often children who are alienated from a parent are unable to describe even one good quality in that parent. Many complaints center on normal parental behaviors that most children will find annoying. This child might complain that the parent limits their video game playing or makes them do their homework. A child may complain that the parent they refuse to see makes them practice their musical instrument before they go out to play. The child’s complaints are disproportionate to the parental demand. The child may act as if the parent is torturing them when in fact the parent had not let the child play an inappropriate video game or see a movie that was not age appropriate. Some of these children will have complaints that include allegations of emotional and physical abuse and possibly sexual molestation. The alienated child often cuts off communication and refuses to visit with family members on the rejected parent’s side of the family. This includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, that the child enjoyed spending time with prior to the cut off from the parent. Commonly these children complain about things that children usually do not complain about. In more than one case the authors have been involved in, a child complained that they did not want to see their grandparents because, “All my grandparents ever want to do is go to places like Disneyworld, Universal Studios, or take us to the beach.” Typically, children do not complain about going to such places with their grandparents.
Leslie Drozd (2009) wrote:
Many divorce cases that include allegations of domestic violence now come with counter-allegations of parental alienation. When assessing for one, it is necessary to assess for the other, just as assessment for substance abuse must be assessed concurrently with allegations of family violence and vice versa (p. 411).
Similarly, when evaluating alleged abuse one should screen for alienating behaviors, and when the presenting problem or allegation is alienation, one should investigate whether there has been abuse. The presence of abuse does not rule out alienating behaviors by the parent, nor does the presence of alienating behavior rule out the occurrence of abuse. It is possible to assess the extent to which alienation, alienating behavior, and abuse impact a child only through a systematic investigation of all possibilities (p. 411).
When children refuse visitation, a child custody evaluation is one option to assess both parents, the children, and examine many factors that have led to this situation. A Guardian ad Litem evaluation is another method often used to assess these situations. One of the limits of the GAL evaluation is that it does not examine the depth of any psychopathology in the parents or the children that may be contributing to the child’s behavior. Any professional conducting an investigation must not assume that the child refuses visitation due to inappropriate behavior or abuse from the parent the child will not see, or assume that any type of alienation exists. Both positions can lead the examiner to approach the evaluation with confirmatory bias or other types of cognitive distortions that could lead to a biased evaluation or biased assessment of the data. David Martindale (2005) defined confirmatory bias as, “The inclination to seek information that will confirm an initially-generated hypothesis and the disinclination to seek information that will disconfirm that hypothesis.
The child custody evaluator must thoroughly assess the characteristics and behavior of the parents and the children. There must be a detailed history of the parent-child relationship prior to the visitation refusal. Interviews with collateral contacts are extremely important in obtaining a sense of the quality of the parent-child relationship before the refusal, after the refusal, and the events leading up to the refusal to visit. The conclusions of the evaluator must offer explanations about the process that has led the specific child to reject or refuse to visit a specific parent. The evaluator should also discuss alternative theories that might explain the child’s refusal.
As in most complex family law cases, there is danger in overly simple explanations for complex behaviors and relationships. Prior to the start of any child custody evaluation there needs to be a clear question of what behaviors are under examination. Having a court order requesting a child custody evaluation to explore why a child is refusing visitation with a parent is a much better question than an order to assess if a parent has alienated a child against the other parent. The first approach opens the investigation to assessing the many reasons why a particular child refuses to see a parent. The latter approach attempts to fit a specific theory to a set of behaviors. That approach also sets up the evaluation for possible confirmatory and other types of bias. A child custody evaluation that conforms to the AFCC Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation (2009) is the most likely procedure to answer the question of why a child refuses visitation.
We welcome your comments, questions, and would appreciate your feedback.
Drozd, Leslie D. (2009) Rejection in Cases of Abuse or Alienation in Divorcing Families. In Galatzer-Levy, Robert M., Kraus, Louis, & Galatzer-Levy, Jeanne (Eds.) The Scientific Basis of Child Custody Decisions (pp. 403-416) John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Gardner, Richard A. (1987) The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabrication and Genuine Child Sex Abuse. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics
Gould, Jonathan W., & Martindale, David A. The Art and Science of Child Custody Evaluations. New York, NY: The Guilford Press
Kelly, Joan B., & Johnston, Janet. The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome (2001). Family Court Review, 39(3), 249-266
Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluations (2009). Family Court Review, (45) 1 70-91.