“What should I do when my child doesn’t want to go visit the other parent?” As a divorce attorney in Charleston, South Carolina, that is one of the toughest (and most heartbreaking) questions I get asked by some clients. When a child refuses to visit with a parent, this scenario (1) prompts distrust and suspicion between the parents, (2) creates an awkward situation between the parents and the child, and (3) puts both parents in legal jeopardy if they don’t handle the situation appropriately. In this article, I will explain in detail South Carolina’s family laws and exactly how to handle your children if they refuse to visit with a parent.
What Happens if When a Child Refuses to Visit Their Father or Mother?
No parent wants to force a tearful child into the back seat of the other parent’s car. Likewise, no parent wants to sit in a driveway watching their child cling to the other parent while refusing to get in the car. Not only are these moments emotionally devastating to the parents and the child, these moments create three major challenges: (1) distrust and suspicion between the parents, (2) awkwardness between the parents and the child, and (3) potential legal jeopardy if the parents don’t handle the situation properly.
- Raising Distrust and Suspicion – The parent who has custody of the child may question whether the other parent has done something harmful to make the child fearful or unwilling to visit. Likewise, the parent who wants to visit with the child may blame the custodial parent for withholding visitation or manipulating the child against the visiting parent.
- Awkward Parenting Choices – Both parents are faced with the challenge of how to deal with the child. The custodial parent may feel that they are letting their child down if they force their child to go on visitation. Meanwhile, the visiting parent may feel like they are doing more harm than good to insist that the child visit.
- Legal Jeopardy – Both parents may place themselves in legal jeopardy with the family court depending upon how they handle the situation. For the custodial parent, they may be accused of interfering with the other parent’s visitation if the child does not go. For the visiting parent, they may be accused of inappropriate conduct in the child’s presence if they argue with the other parent over visitation.
Figuring Out Why Your Child Doesn’t Want to Visit
Understanding “why” your child refuses to visit is the first step to resolving the issue. However, you can easily cause emotional harm to your child and create legal problems for yourself if you go about getting answers the wrong way such as questioning the child yourself.
Based on my experience, the reason why a child refuses visitation typically falls into one of four categories each of which requires a different approach by the parents. Here’s what you should and should not do in each situation:
- Reciprocal Anxiety Over Visitation – Parents and children can feed on each other’s anxieties. These anxieties, both the parent’s and the child’s, can reach their peak during visitation exchanges and create a sort of “emotional feedback loop.” The child or the parent exhibits anxious behaviors before visitation which in turn causes the child or parent to become more distressed which in turn feeds back into both child’s and parent’s anxieties. Here’s what parents can do to break this cycle:
- Listen to and respect your child’s feelings. The experience of being listened to can have a powerful calming effect.
- Don’t reinforce your child’s feelings. Parents sometimes make the mistake of reinforcing the child’s anxiety by saying things along the lines of “I don’t want you to go too” or “I’m going to miss you so much.” Instead, let your child know that although you understand his or her feelings, you “WANT” your child to go visit.
- Don’t ask your child to report back about their experiences. I read another article that recommended that after the visitation, you should ask your child about what they did with the other parent and give positive feedback such as “So you went to the zoo with your day? That sounds like it was fun!” This is exactly what you should NOT do. Never ask your child to report back about the other parent. For a detailed discussion on this and how you should deal with your children in a divorce, CLICK HERE.
- Manipulation by the Child – Some children don’t want to visit the other parent because the child has other things they’d rather do (such as go visit a friend in the neighborhood) or things they wish to avoid (chores at the other parent’s home). You should handle this scenario the same way as you should handle a child that is anxious about visiting.
- Manipulation by the Parent – When a parent manipulates a child against visitation, this is one of the most challenging circumstances to address legally and psychologically. In this situation, the manipulating parent typically does thing such as:
- Tell the child how “sad” the parent is when the child is gone;
- Tell the child about fun activities (such as a pool party) that the child will miss out on while the child is away;
- Lay blame on the other parent as to why the family is separated; or
- Make negative comments about the child’s experiences at the other parent’s home such as, “That’s terrible that you had to help your father clean his yard.” To learn what you should do in this situation, read the section below on “What Do I Do If the Other Parent is Withholding or Interfering with Visitation?”
- Genuine Fearfulness of the Parent – In this situation, the visiting parent is doing something that is truly harmful to the child such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse. To learn what you should do in this situation, read the section below on “What Do I Do If Visitation is Truly Harming My Child?”
Do I Have to Force My Child to Visit with the Other Parent?
Some parents have asked me whether they have to “force” their child to visit. I am not a fan of the word “force” because it suggests that the parent doesn’t want the child to go in the first place or the parent supports the child’s unwillingness to visit. Having said that, if you have a family court order that provides for a visitation schedule, then the safest answer is “yes” you must make the child go. If you fail to abide by the court order, there can be several legal consequences. First, you could be held in contempt of the court order and face significant penalties including jail. For a detailed discussion of contempt in family court, CLICK HERE. Second, you may face a legal claim for a change in custody 0r supervised visitation based on allegations that you are interfering with the child’s parental relationship.
Can I Force My Child to Visit with Me?
You can take legal action to enforce visitation with your child. Before you do so, I urge you to consider the non-legal ramifications of turning to the family court for assistance especially involving teenage children. For example, let’s say your child is 16-years-old and wants to hang out with his or her friends instead of visiting with you. If you force your 16-year-old to visit, I can assure you that the visitation will not go well. Your child will be angry and upset with you and the child’s negative feelings about visitation will increase. I recommend a non-legal approach such as modifying the visitation schedule to accommodate the child’s activities. I also recommend a discussion with your child to listen to his or her feelings about visitation. In a nutshell, try to comprise with a teenage child to come up with a schedule that everyone can live with.
How Old Does a Child Have to be to Refuse Visitation in South Carolina
Many clients ask me whether there is an age can a child have to be to refuse visitation. Under South Carolina’s family laws, there is no set age at which a child can refuse to go visit with the other parent.
What Do I Do If the Other Parent is Withholding or Interfering with Visitation?
If a parent is purposefully withholding or interfering with your visitation, you should consult with a family court attorney. There are essentially two legal avenues to take in this situation. First, if there is a court order that establishes your visitation schedule, then you can ask the family court to hold the other parent in contempt of court. For detailed information on contempt of court proceedings in South Carolina’s family courts, CLICK HERE. Second, you can ask the family court to give you custody if you can prove that the other parent is purposefully interfering with visitation. Additionally, the court may also limit or supervise the offending parent’s visitation with the child.
I want to emphasize that taking the other parent to court should be your last option before trying non-legal means to improve relations with the other parent. The reason why I make this suggestion is that when you take the other parent to court, you can expect that their attempts to interfere make actually get worse, not better, as a reaction to being sued. Before going to court, trying speaking with the other parent to find out what their concerns might be regarding visitation. In some instances, you may quickly discover that you have no alternative but to go to court. However, in some instances, you may find that the other parent may have concerns that you can easily address through compromise or just be talking with one another.
What Do I Do If Visitation is Truly Harming My Child?
If the visiting parent is doing something that is truly harmful to the child such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse, then you must take immediate legal action to protect your child.
- Physical or Sexual Abuse – First, you should contact law enforcement for suspected abuse. Law enforcement will need to collect and preserve evidence of such abuse. If you take your child to a pediatrician or emergency room first, they may inadvertently destroy (or fail to collect) evidence in cases of sexual abuse that is needed for any prosecution. Additionally, you may contact the Department of Social Services to report the abuse for investigation and intervention by the family court. For a more detailed discussion about DSS child abuse and neglect cases, CLICK HERE. Lastly, speak with a family court lawyer about whether you can deny the other parent visitation in an emergency or whether the attorney can get an emergency order from the family court stopping visitation.
- Emotional Abuse – Emotional abuse of a child by a parent is perhaps even more tragic than physical abuse because these cases are hard to prove to a family court judge. For example, most family court judge’s are reluctant to hear any testimony from a child. Even if the court listens to what a child has to say, they may not give much weight to the child’s claims if the child is young or immature. Nevertheless, there are things you can do to try and protect your child. First, like physical abuse, you can contact DSS to investigate. In my professional opinion, DSS is not well-equipped to handle these cases. Your best approach is to contact a seasoned family court attorney who can formulate a legal plan of action to protect your child such as:
- Sending the child to a therapist or otherwise forensic child interviewer to document the emotional abuse;
- Gathering school (and sometimes medical) records to show that the child is suffering from the other parent’s treatment of the child;
- Gathering statements from teachers, afterschool care providers, and other adult witnesses to the parent’s abusive conduct; and
- Using the collected evidence to request that the family court suspend or supervise visitation pending an investigation into the situation.
Although I’ve tried to give you as much guidance as I can on variations of children who don’t want to visit with a parent, I must point out that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to dealing with this sensitive situation. Obviously, every child and every parent are unique. Because of the complexity of these situations and the risk of doing more harm than good by sorting it out yourself, I encourage you to involve child counselors, the other parent (to the extent possible), and even a family court attorney to find the best solution for your child.