A child custody case involving a high-conflict spouse/partner invariably devolves into a fight where both parents believe they are in the right.  The truth is that usually one of them is – that is to say – more in the “right” than the other.  However, the stark reality is that this usually isn’t what matters in family court.  Truth and reality are obscured in favor of which parent can portray the other to be worse, regardless of what the actual truth may be.  If the negative behavior is played out in front of the children, it can have dire consequences for them both short-term and long-term.

One of those issues is that the children become worried and even fearful of one or both parents.  Sometimes it is due to parental alienation which takes place in varying degrees in many child custody situations.  Sometimes it’s as a result of frequent custodial interference on the part of a high-conflict ex-partner, also a common problem with contentious child custody matters.  It may be a result of other coercive behaviors on the part of one parent.  There are times when whatever the impetus – a child may simply refuse to go during one or more of the court ordered child custody exchanges.

How should you handle a situation when a child refuses to go with the other parent?

The short answer is:  Very carefully.

The easiest and most ineffective response to the situation is to openly continue the blame game, particularly in front of the child.  Responding with a strong negative reaction will only serve to further exacerbate the child’s lack of desire to go with you or the other parent.  Further, it can add to the issues that the other side may use against you to keep limited your child’s interaction with you in a future child custody hearing.

Whatever is driving the child’s refusal, it’s important to address it in a calm, loving way.  They have the answer to the question, “Why won’t you come?” It’s fair to attempt to try and convince the child to come with you (or go with them) depending upon the circumstances.  If you’re dealing with a high-conflict personality on the other side of this equation, for instance, one who is openly supporting the child’s desire to not go  with you – your efforts may be very short in duration.  A few quick questions to the child may help clue you into what is driving their behavior.

  • Why don’t you want to come with me?
  • Can you describe what it is that you fear?
  • Be honest with me, is there something else you would rather do than come with me?
  • Do you understand that it is important for you to see both dad and mom and this is the arrangement that has been worked out with the judge?

Be sure to behave in a non-threatening manner.  You may be returning home without the child, but hopefully you will return home with some indication as to why they refused to come.  With that information, you can work out what the next course of action may be.

If you’re in a public place and either the child or the other parent is escalating to a point where it’s becoming a “scene,” that’s when it’s time to cut your efforts short and walk away.  If it’s truly due to parental alienation efforts by your ex-spouse, make sure to obtain some evidence that you were at the custodial exchange point at the time and required place.  The tip we often give to people is to purchase something at a nearby shop or market and file the receipt which will indicate the date and time stamp.  This evidence will be counter to any attempt by the high-conflict parent to claim that you simply failed to show up for the child custody exchange.

Beyond trying to address it on-the-spot, it may mean that additional professional intervention is needed to allay any fears that the child has regarding your parenting time.  A child psychologist may prove helpful under such circumstances.  If your high-conflict ex is uncooperative, you may need to file a petition in order to take the child to a therapist.

If the fear is genuine for any reason, the therapist is best able to help you and the child work through any issues and get things back on track so that future child custody exchanges remain uneventful.  If the problem is with a parent engaging in parental alienation, the therapist can work with the high-conflict parent to bring an end to such custodial interference tactics.  If that fails, at least you’ll be able to produce a report or other findings by the therapist in future child custody litigation.

The bottom line is that time is on the side of the honest parent.  If you continue to document your issues and compile evidence of your complete compliance with the court’s child custody order, the high-conflict ex-spouse will continue to make mistakes that will ultimately be their undoing.  It may not seem like it when you’re going through a situation such as this, but be patient, be smart, and always be on your best behavior.