Divorce can be hard on children. While parents have gone through the steps of grief at losing their relationship and creating a new home for themselves, it is their children who usually go back and forth – sometimes every few days – between each parent’s home. Many times, parents feel that the children need to see each parent frequently, but sometimes the constant state of motion causes a child to feel like he/she has no “home base,” and no time to relax. Also, as children get older and are more focused on friends, the parent who does not live near those friends, or is hesitant to permit the child to create social opportunities during his or her limited parenting time may also find that the child does not want to come for parenting time. Children continue to love both parents in each scenario but may express reluctance to participate in parenting time. While this hesitation can sometimes be expressed quite clearly, in other cases, it may come out as a child saying he or she has a stomachache, feels nervous, or starts crying. What is a parent to do when faced with a hesitating child?
While it is heartbreaking to hear that a child may not want to go to a co-parent’s home, Indiana law does not allow children to make these very adult decisions. The Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines provide that in these situations, “each parent shall be responsible to ensure the child complies with the scheduled parenting time. In no event shall a child be allowed to make the decision on whether scheduled parenting time takes place.” This means that as hard as it may be for a parent to fight with a child to go to the other parent’s home or feel that they are forcing the child to go, that is what has to happen. While no one would recommend physically forcing a child into the car, and we can all agree that picking up a teenager is unlikely, there are other techniques parents can try.
Parents should calmly tell children that they have no choice, the other parent loves them and can’t wait to see them. The parent from whom the child is hesitating should allow the child to contact the other parent on a reasonable time and duration, so as to make the child feel comfortable and reassured. However, the child should not be permitted to call the other parent to request that the child be picked up to end parenting time early. Discussions should occur between parents to see if there is something that can help make the child’s room at the parent’s home more comfortable and inviting. When possible, both parents should allow the child to launch activities from their respective homes, and to have friends over.
Under no circumstances should a parent allow a child to determine when and for how long parenting time should occur. While parents feel that this is giving the child autonomy and respecting his or her wishes, it is actually putting tremendous pressure and power on a child that is extremely detrimental to the child. Parenting time plans are for PARENTS to figure out, not the child.
If the hesitation is causing parenting time to be a battleground between child and parent, that is the time to seek the assistance of a mental health professional to help figure out why and how to help smooth out the parent-child relationship.