When Your Child Refuses Visitation

Many divorced parents experience times when their child refuses visitation with the other parent. This leaves them wondering about the reasons for their resistance and what they can do about it.

By WomansDivorce.com | Answers by Brette Sember, J.D.

Child packed for visitation but refuses to go

As kids get older, they sometimes resent how visitation seems to interrupt their plans. At other times, a child may feel bitter about the non-custodial parent's significant other. Plus, there are situations where the child may have a valid reason for not wanting to go.

Whatever the reason, it can put you in a bad position. If you don’t comply with the visitation schedule, you can get in trouble for not making them go. On the other hand, it is pretty difficult to force a teenager to visit the other parent if they don’t want to. If you’re facing this situation, keep reading to learn what your options are. 

When can a child decide whether to visit or not?

Lisa's Question: I am another single mom with a visitation issue and concern. My 9 year old son is expressing a lot of dissatisfaction about having to miss out on his key events to visit his father. He visits his Dad 6 weeks in the summer and one weekend a month. He has made a club level soccer team, which requires more of a commitment. I do not have control of his attendance when he is required to visit his father. My son is very upset because he may be eliminated from the team if he continues to miss games/practices. Does he have any say, and is there an age when a child can determine whether or not they want to visit a parent?

Brette's Answer: It is difficult when children reach an age where they start to have commitments that don't mesh with visitation. A court would weigh the importance of your son's activities against the importance that he stay connected to his father, and it's likely staying connected to his father is going to seem more important. I would suggest you try to find a compromise. Talk to your ex and explain to him how important these games and practices are and see if he might come down for them instead of taking your son to his house all the time. I would also suggest you talk to the coach and explain the situation.

Can the kids be excused from seeing their dad until they are ready?

Anna's Question: My children (10 and 12) have witnessed their father verbally abuse me for years and saw it escalate to physical violence in July. They've been living with his bipolar rages, lack of interest in them, emotional and verbal abuse our entire marriage and are terrified of him. He has been ordered to have supervised visitations at a center, but the kids are not ready to go into a visitation center and see him. Can they go in and say they don't want to see him and be dismissed until they are more ready for this?

Brette's Answer: Children can and do refuse visitation. You as the parent must comply with the order though, but no one can force them to comply. Therapy could be a very good thing for them and in addition to helping them cope, the therapist could then testify about their emotional state and what kind of visitation (if at all) would be healthy for them. You should discuss all of this with your attorney.

At what age can children choose to spend less time with their dad?

Janet's Question: My 2 daughters are 9 & 12. How old must a child be to make a request to the judge that she wants to spend less time with her father? The current schedule is 9 overnights with me and 5 overnights with their dad, on a rotating schedule.

Brette's Answer: There is no law about this. Each state has different case law that indicates what kind of influence the child can have on the decision at various age ranges. It depends on that particular child's ability. The decision is never completely up to the child.

The thing to understand is that most kids go through phases where they want to spend less time with one parent or the other. The request in and of itself is not going to be enough. There needs to be some proof that a change would benefit the kids. At 9 and 12, they are old enough to express an opinion, but their opinion is not going to be decisive. If you want a change, you need to show the court why the current plan isn't working and how a change would help the kids. Is this schedule confusing for them? Is it hard to deal with school while going and back and forth like this? Would they benefit from a little more stability? These are the kinds of issues that need to be addressed.

Can a 17 year old decide when to visit?

Tracy's Question: My 17 year old has had some issues with his dad and on occasion has refused to go to the visitation. However, I have encouraged him to go anyway. Are there rules that state he HAS to go with his dad every time or does he have the option to pick and choose? My son wants to see his dad but there are times he doesn't want to go from Friday-Monday. My attorney says he gets to choose, but my ex’s attorney says he doesn’t.

Brette's Answer: No court is going to force a 17 year old to go on visitation if he doesn't want to. A child so close to majority usually has his preference followed. You're doing the right thing in encouraging him to go, but it's up to him. I think your attorney ought to be communicating the situation to your ex's attorney - that would be the easiest way to resolve this. What would be best is if your son could learn to have an independent relationship with his dad where he arranges time to spend together on his own. 

Do I have to make my child visit her father?

Child refuses visitation and not listening to mom

Jill writes: Please give me some help and advice. My 14 year old daughter does not want to visit with her father. He drinks and keeps his house unclean. I have been ordered by the court for her to go, and gave my lawyer many items to support my daughter's reasons not wanting to. Do I or my daughter have any other options?

Brette's Answer: I think it's terrific that you have made the effort to allow your daughter time with her father. It's also very responsible of you to follow the court order - you don't want to find yourself in contempt of court. Withholding visitation can be grounds for a change in custody, so you don't want to go there. I understand your concerns though. I have several suggestions for you. First of all, you need to know your daughter is not the first and certainly won't be the last teenager who disagrees with a visitation plan. Part of being a teen is rebelling, making contrary decisions, and testing. There were probably times when you were a teenager that you didn't want to spend time with your parents, and it's no different for kids of divorced parents. Your daughter's feelings are important, but as her parent, you have to look at the big picture and see that it is important for her to have a relationship with both of her parents.

Now that being said, I completely understand your worries about what is happening at his house. If it's at all possible try to sit down with him in a neutral, no-conflict way and share your concerns. Don't accuse and don't judge. Instead, tell him how your daughter is feeling. Stress that you really want them to spend time together and say you're hoping maybe together you can come up with a way for your daughter to feel more comfortable at his home or with him. The key to this conversation is to try to approach it like you and he are solving a problem together, not as if you are confronting him (and this is not to say you aren't totally entitled to do so, but it's not going to be productive). If his house is a mess, what if he takes her out to eat once a week instead? There are alternatives. You just have to find some that will work.

If this doesn't work, it might be a good idea for your attorney and you to have a serious face to face talk. You need to discuss in detail what your concerns are with specific incidents. To have grounds to change visitation you've got to have some real facts and solid incidents that show he is putting her in bad situations. Your daughter's opinion is important and a court will take into the consideration the opinion of a teen, but by itself it isn't enough. She is still a minor and it's in her best interest to have two parents in her life.

I worked with many families who were in similar situations to yours and I know how difficult and frustrating it is for you. The fact is that you can't change who he is and neither can your daughter. You have to either find a way to work with him or a way to convince a judge that he is not fit to take care of her. And you can focus on helping your daughter cope with whatever outcome you have by having her see a counselor who can help her work through her feelings about her dad. I wish you both the best of luck. ~Brette~

Can I stop visitation if she doesn't want to visit her father?

Susan's Question: I have a custody agreement which puts me as primary care giver of my daughter. Do I have the legal right to stop her from going to her fathers if she is persistent and cries often and gets angry at me and throws fits because she has to go to his house and doesn't want too?

Brette's Answer: No you don't. In fact, it is your responsibility as the custodial parent to encourage her to go and help her work through her feelings. This is not at all abnormal. Most kids have resistance to visitation at some point.

If you give in, you're giving the child control of the situation. Instead, I would suggest several things. Depending on her age, try to find out what her objection is. Then try to create coping mechanisms to deal with those concerns. Get her father involved so he knows what's going on. If you and your ex can work together and present a united front, it will help her get through it.

What can I do if my son is suddenly afraid to go to his Dad's?

Suz's Question: My son is 5 and has been going with his dad since he was 1. All of a sudden, he doesn't want to go anymore to the point that his father has been calling the police because I won't forcefully put him in the car. My son says that he is scared of him. We currently have shared custody and he is threatening to file for 50-50 custody. Will a judge grant this if the child doesn't even want to go for a weekend? I really don't want my son to end up suffering more than benefiting.

Brette's Answer: It sounds like you need a professional evaluation of what is going on. Why is your son afraid? Sometimes children go through stages where they don't want to go and have no good reason, but there could be a real problem. It also sounds like the exchanges are filled with tension and this could be making your son upset, or more upset. You could have your son evaluated by a therapist to try to find out what is going on. You could have someone else do the hand-offs, so that you and your ex are not together. Depending on what the therapist says custody may need to be adjusted.

Would the judge order counseling if my son doesn't want to see me?

Vida's Question: My 14 year old son has been refusing to live with me and has stayed with his father. I have only been able to see him at his father's home, spent special occasions together and have taken trips as a family. I did not go to court because I was afraid my son and his father would get even angrier and I would see him even less, but I am faced with the reality that I may not be able to see him anyway. Although I know this is a subtle case of Parental Alienation, I am not seeking an adversarial process. I only want to see my son. His father is not going to fight me for custody. He doesn't really have to because our son is refusing to be with me. Would the judge at least order counseling for my son and me?

Brette's Answer: I think it is good to never give up on your child. Asking for some visitation and counseling is an excellent idea. A therapist can help both of you figure your relationship out. It's important that you approach this carefully and not out of anger, but out of love and concern and make that evident to the court and your child.

Can a teen choose whether to go for visitation or not?

Victoria's Question: My parents are divorced and my dad and I don't get along. Can I choose if I want to go to his house on the weekends or can he force me? Is it legal for a teen to choose if they want to go or not?

Brette's Answer: You should talk to your mom about this. Your opinion is very important to the court. However, whether you like it or not he is your dad and will be for the rest of your life. Cutting him out of your life completely is not the answer. Divorce is hard for everyone involved. I think it would be great if your mom could help you find someone to talk about this - maybe a counselor or therapist.

Can my teens refuse to spend time with my fiancé and me?

Mary's Question: I have been divorced for 4 years. I have been seeing a man for 18 months now and we are planning on getting married. My 14 year old triplet boys refuse to meet him and spend time with us as a couple. Are they allowed to make that decision?

Brette's Answer: Hi Mary. Children do not get to decide about visitation. However, once they become teens, it is harder to force them to go. The question here is how is your ex handling this? Is he encouraging them to go? Is he saying bad things about you or your boyfriend? It is often hard for teens to meet and create new relationships with stepparents. I would encourage you to seek the help of a therapist if you can't make any progress.

What if my child doesn't want to visit her abusive father?

Ami's Question: My ex-husband was charged with emotional maltreatment of our 15-yr old daughter. We attended mediation and mutually agreed in writing that our daughter could choose when to go on visits. My ex then turned around and accused me of custodial interference. Our daughter was already in counseling at the time, but the counselor has refused to write a letter or appear in court over fears of being sued by my ex. If a case of emotional abuse was substantiated by Child Protective Services, but I can't get a guardian ad litem appointed and her former counselor won't testify, what options do I have?

Brette's Answer: You can subpoena her counselor. A finding of child abuse is significant and persuasive to the court. If you have a written agreement that your daughter could choose to go or not, he doesn't have much to stand on to accuse you of custodial interference. You need to get an attorney.

Am I held responsible if my teenager refuses to go?

Linda's Question: My 16 year old son does not get along with is dad and does not want to go to his house for visitation. I try to tell him it is court ordered and he should try to improve his relationship by going and talking to his dad. What is my responsibility in trying to force him to go? (My ex has said he'd take me to court on contempt charges). I cannot drag him out the door -- what steps do I take so the court will know I have tried to enforce the visitation schedule?

Brette's Answer:
Dear Linda, I know how difficult your situation is. You're caught in the middle - you want your son to have a relationship with his dad, but you don't want to become the bad guy by forcing him to go. It sounds to me like you're doing all the rights things. All you can do is encourage your son to go. As long as you arrange the visitation times and make your son available, it's unlikely a court would have any problem with what you're doing. Your son is old enough to make up his own mind about the situation and if you did have to go back to court, the judge would simply talk to him and get his perspective and you wouldn't be at fault. No one is going to suggest you have to force him to go at gunpoint.

You might try talking to your son about changing the schedule. Instead of going to stay at his dad's house, what if he just had dinner with him or went to a sporting event one night a week or once every two weeks? I've often found that teens aren't aware that there are options and they simply see the situation as take it or leave it and reject it out of hand. You could also find out what about the visitation it is that he doesn't like. He might have very specific things that bother him that could be changed, for example having to spend time with his dad's girlfriend or not being allowed to see his friends while at his dad's house. He may also be having a typical teenage clash with his dad about rules or responsibilities. Find out what's going on and see if there are any fixes.

I would also suggest you try to talk to your ex yourself and tell him you're on his side and you want your son to go, but that he is at an age where forcing him to go is just going to cause resentment. Talk to your ex about the kinds of options I've suggested above. Tell him that maybe you can work together to find some alternate solutions that will work. Show him you want to make it work. Another possibility is for your ex and your son to see a counselor together to try to resolve the issues between them.

Can he force visitation if my almost 18 year old doesn't know him?

Bernadette's Question: The father of my 17 1/2 yr. old daughter has never had any type of contact with her. When she was 7, she wanted a relationship with him and I reached out to him, only to be rejected. Ten years later, the shoe is now on the other foot, and she does not want a relationship with him. I've tried explaining to her that this might be a good thing for her to finally get to know her father, but she is very adamant about not wanting to meet him. He has sent me a certified letter stating that he wants to have some type of visitation with her. Otherwise, he will take me to court. What are the chances he'll get visitation?

Brette's Answer: I agree with you that it might be a good thing for her to get to know her father. However she is too old for him to force it through the courts. He's likely to get nowhere. It's not really up to you - she's old enough that her opinion will be what the court listens to.

Can he stop support if my 18 year old refuses visitation?

Diane's Question: My daughter is 18 but still a senior in high school. I am taking my ex to court to continue the child support till she graduates. Does my daughter still have to see him? She doesn't want to as she is not comfortable with him as he drinks a lot. If she doesn't see him can he stop the child support?

Brette's Answer: Child support and visitation are two separate things. Also, visitation generally ends at age 18 when the child becomes an adult. At that point, it is up to the child and parent to continue their relationship as they wish.

Can they arrest me if my child refuses visitation?

Phylenne's Question: Is there a law that protects a mom from being held responsible for the daughters' refusal to go with dad on visitation? My children refuse to visit their father because they are afraid of him. He has previously used his own flesh and blood for the pleasure of his buddies in the past. I have to represent myself because I haven't found a lawyer who has time for our case. His lawyer said at the admit/deny hearing that it is their plan to lock me up at the hearing and pick up my daughters. Their dad is rated 100 percent mentally disabled, and has a record of being involuntarily committed to a psych ward for six months for harassing a woman. Help!

Brette's Answer: If you do not send your children on visitation, it is considered custodial interference which can be the grounds for a change in custody. Get an attorney and present your allegations to the court about why he should not have custody. Ask that a guardian ad litem be appointed to represent the children and their point of view so that the court can be made aware of why they don't want to go on visitation. Good luck.