What to do about the resistant child, the youngster who is fighting contact with one parent in a divorce case and who poses challenges for the attorneys representing former spouses as they sort out custody issues?
How do you recognize when a child is justifiably rejecting a parent or, instead, has been manipulated into that rejection? How do you assess and manage these cases in an effective and fair way?
A Maryland State Bar Association panel at the organization’s annual summer conference focused on those topics.
“These cases are important because children who have shown resistance and refusal are more likely to have poor outcomes, essentially, in every area of their life,” said Samantha Rodier, an experienced Harford County family law practitioner who moderated the panel.
Furthermore, a resistant child can complicate a judge’s focus on one of the foundational principles of custody rulings – prioritizing what is in the best interests of the child.
And it’s not an insignificant problem, Rodier said. Studies show that 15-40% of children reject the noncustodial parent, regardless of the child’s gender, she said.
The causes of a child’s alienation can be many, Rodier noted. Parental conflict. Different parenting and communication styles. A child’s personality or vulnerability level. The list goes on.
“Adolescents are far more likely to be alienated or susceptible to alienation than a younger child,” she said.
Trying to ascertain the causes of a child’s alienation from a parent can be a challenging process, said Ayanna Burnett, a social worker who specializes in family reunification services. She said she tries to build connections with all the parties involved, to “slow things down” and to see if the “initial narrative changes, whether the behavior changes, depending on who’s in the room and who’s not.”
“Usually if you have a child that’s disconnected from a parent, you have an unmet emotional need,” Burnett said.
Kathryn Rogers has more than 30 years as a mediator and child access assessor. She said the root of a child’s alienation might be caused by a parent “oversharing” regarding what’s happening in the marriage. Perhaps there’s a scenario where one of the parents remarries, so the ex-spouse tells the child that the partner was unfaithful.
There can be “gatekeeping” behavior, in which a parent cuts off the maternal or paternal grandparents. Or a parent might “demonize” the other.
“Some parents are needy and have a fear of not being with a child …they can’t separate their own needs from those of their child. ‘Ooh, mommy is going to miss you so much,’” Rogers added.
Nonetheless, she noted, it’s not unnatural or inappropriate for a child to prefer one parent over the other.
“It’s not pathological for a kid to have an affinity for a parent,” Rogers said. “Everybody contributes to these issues,” not just one parent. “Whatever you’re hearing, there’s another side to the story.”
Lindsay Parvis is a family law attorney with Joseph Greenwald & Laake in Montgomery County who has been active in the field on a statewide level as well. She told the MSBA audience that attorneys can’t solve these issues alone – they need therapists and counselors as well.
“It’s important to put together a team that can support the family and maintain the child’s safety and emotional security,” Parvis said.
Parvis also stressed that attorneys need to push for custody agreements in which judges lay out specific and detailed guidance on how those agreements work – and to push for timely check-ins and appropriate enforcement.
Representing the judiciary on the MSBA panel was Montgomery County Circuit Judge Kathleen M. Dumais, a former family law attorney who also oversaw those issues during her previous career as a state legislator.
Dumais said it’s frustrating for judges. “I don’t see these cases until they’re at a critical stage, “she said. Further compounding the problem, she added, is that “our system is set up to be adversarial.”
While most involved in the process agree that providing counseling services is a good intervention, the cost of those services can be significant and are often not covered by insurance.
“The big elephant in the room is nobody has any money,” she said.
Ultimately, Dumais and the other panelists agreed, one of the most powerful points that can be made to the divorced parents caught in the middle of a resistant-child dilemma is simple:
“Children that have both parents – a relationship with both parents – do better,” Dumais said.