Picture this: you have a custody agreement in place with your ex-partner (in the sense that you are no longer together and/or married but they are your lifelong co-parenting partner) and one day your child decides that they refuse to go to their visit with their other parent. What do you do? Do you yield to the child’s wishes? Do you force them to go? The answer to this scenario is not necessarily yes or no, but we are here to help you and to navigate these challenges.
The short answer: is it is important to find out the reasons why your child does not want to visit their other parent, discuss it with them and encourage the visits and most importantly, try to work together with your co-parent.
It is important for parents to know that even when their child does not want to see the other parent, custodial parents are legally responsible for making sure that their child sees the other parent. When you sign a custody agreement, family law courts expect parents to work together and encourage their child to spend time with each parent in accordance with the agreement signed and/or judgement that was rendered by the court. It is unfavourable for the parent who does not facilitate and encourage maximum access and contact with the other parent and this can compromise your position with the courts and impact your custody arrangement. Until a child turns 18, the parent needs to ensure that the custody order is respected. Of course in later teens if a child has a social gathering, an activity, concert, or expresses their wish not to go to a visit or to change the plans, as parents you need to be open to those requests and work with your child to appease their needs and wishes. As of 12 years old in Quebec the courts will start to consider the child’s wish as one of the multiple factors it considers when rendering a custody order.
This is often easier said than done, however. For example, a child who is 17 years old and going through normal teenage behaviour might not want to keep switching houses between their two parents. The same might go for a younger child who might enjoy little things like their toys or their room better in one parent’s house or might like that one parent is less strict with the rules. That being said you need to make every best effort in order to make the transitions between homes as smooth as possible. For younger kids for example, have two of their favourite stuff animals or toys, or tell them that certain of their favourite things can travel back and forth with them. As parents you need to be thoughtful and creative as to how to make their life easier and ensure they are comfortable and happy.
If your child refuses to visit the other parent, you must immediately do two things: notify the other parent and document it. It is incredibly important that you notify the other parent in writing (preferably) of the situation and you should seek advice from your lawyer as to how you should communicate this to the other parent. Keep a record of what your child has said and the reasons why they do not want to visit the other parent. You should take notes of the steps you took and the process, for example how you tried to encourage them, what you said, what you did in order to visit their other parent.
As parents we have to be careful not to enable certain behaviours and to avoid empowering them to make decisions that are not in their best interest. Also, if there is a pending litigation, you need to ensure that you are not projecting your feelings and/or concerns on your child. It is also important to tell your child you will have fun, you always do, he/she has fun things planned for you, you get to see your toys and all your books, I am excited for you. It is as important for your child to feel that you are OKAY and that you will be OKAY while they are gone. A lot of children worry about their parents and their feelings, that you will be lonely, or that you do not want them to leave. Children are sensitive to their parents’ feelings, this starts even at an early age when a child falls and looks to see if their parent reacts to know if they should walk it off or cry – this is the same thing but at a deeper level! If they are having these feelings – they are in a conflict of loyalty between parents. When they get home from the visit, engage with them, ask them what they did, seem excited and happy for them that they had a good time (even though naturally you are not). It is everything for your child to feel that you are OKAY and then in return they can be OKAY about it all too.
A critical step is to talk to your child and encourage them to go as planned. Your child might be acting out, having a bad day, or there could be something deeper at the root of their behaviour, or not. Let them know that they can speak openly, and that you will not judge them and that they will not be punished if they explain the reasons they do not want to go. It is possible that there is a new person in the other parent’s life which is making the child uncomfortable or has put the child in a conflict of loyalty. If this is the case, try to communicate to your child that expanding the family is a positive change and that the new partner will not replace you, but can be there for them as a new friend or role model in their life.
They might also just want “their things”, or don’t feel like it, just like when they don’t want to go to their swim lessons or want to cancel a playdate, but in those situations you encourage them to go, because you know once they get there they will have fun. You are the parent and know what is in their best interest, in “that moment” they see red and are not able to discern that, especially if they are having a difficult time.
Your child has to understand that even though their parents are separated or divorced, you will always be a family, the only difference is that it has been restructured and looks a bit different from before. It is helpful to have your co-parent join in on the conversation and have a family meeting. This will show your child that despite living in separate homes, you are still a family unit and can still work together to come up with solutions. Your child should not feel like they have to choose one home over the other. Never badmouth the other parent in front of your child, as children are very easily influenced by what we say and this can contribute to them not wanting to see the other parent, and infringe significantly on their feelings towards the other parent.
At the end of the day, your child’s happiness is the most important thing, but it needs to be clear to them that their parents are in charge and that it is essential that they visit both their parents. If parents facilitate smooth transitions between households, make sure that their child has everything they need on them to feel comfortable no matter where they are living (their favourite stuffed animal, their favourite pyjamas, or their favourite book) and encourage a positive relationship between both parents, your child will have a much easier time being excited to continue to build their relationship and to see both of their parents.
It is important to remember that it is normal for transitions not to be smooth. Even as adults we have trouble settling and adjusting after a vacation, or switching between for example house in the city and a country home (cottage). We all need time to transition and adjust. It is normal for your child to get comfortable and not want to leave once they are settled and their bag is unpacked and they are having a good time. You need to go easy on them and recognize that it is hard for them to switch homes, but remember that kids are resilient and they will adjust to this new normal. If the transitions continue to be a reoccurring issue, we suggest that you limit the exchanges to take place directly from school and/or daycare. This eliminates the struggle and changes the environment for the child.
If this is a recurring problem, we would encourage parents to seek help from a neutral third party such as a child psychologist for your child to talk to. Perhaps your child will open up and explain to them something that they are too nervous to talk to you about.
Do not hesitate to reach out to us with any more questions or concerns related to custody cases!