Custody Battles: What to do When a Child Refuses to Visit a Parent

Custody Battles:  What to do When a Child Refuses to Visit a Parent


My husband had an argument with his 14 year old son two weeks ago. His son does not live with us. His son refuses to even talk to his father now and won’t see him. His son wants to be at his mom’s house where his friends are and it seems he is using the argument as a reason not to come to our home. Do you think it’s normal to hold a grudge for 2 weeks? Don’t you think he should be made to see his dad instead of letting his son have control? Thank you.


Your questions of whether or not I “think it is normal to hold a grudge for two weeks, ” and “should he (your step son) be made to see his dad instead of letting his son have control” are very good questions, but they seem to miss what I consider to be the real heart of the matter!  My short answers would be “Yes, I do think it is normal to hold a grudge for that long,” and, “No, I don’t think he should be made to see his dad.”  To me, the heart of the matter is that your step-son is angry, probably over something that happened during his “argument” with his father, now more than two weeks ago!  This issue has less to do with the actual length of time that an individual can “hold grudges,” and even less to do with who does or does not have “control” in the relationship.  Relationships are less about “control,” and more about “connection!”  This issue is mostly about coming to the realization that there is a significant, painful and unresolved conflict between a father (your husband) and his son!  In situations like this, it is my conviction that the adult is most responsible for initiating efforts to resolve these conflicts.  In general, teenagers lack the full capacity needed to “step out of the situation” in order to reflect upon it, and to gain some reasonable insights into what has fueled the fire of the conflict at hand.  With these new insights, the adult, usually, is better equipped to listen to his or her teenaged son or daughter, to understand his or her perspective, and ultimately, to resolve the conflict more effectively.  If the situation is too “hot,” then the adult needs to get help HE needs in order to go back and try to restore harmony in the relationship.  I do NOT mean to say that the teenager doesn’t play a role here – he does.  But it is the adult who needs to initiate communication focused on trying to resolve the conflict.

In this situation, do you, or does your husband, know why this boy is so angry?  What happened in that argument?  If this son “refuses to even talk to his father now,” it seems clear that this son is not just feeling angry – anger is always the protective/defensive shell that covers a deeper emotional wound – but that he is also feeling hurt in some other, deeper way.  Is he scared? Offended?  My guess is that this boy’s refusing to talk or to come to your house is the ONLY WAY HE KNOWS how to communicate about the strength of his feelings.  Something your husband said or did has hurt this boy, and this boy (and possibly this dad, too) needs help sorting that out.  “Making him” come to your house, when he already feels so hurt and upset, would seem like adding “insult to injury!”  The main point here is this: your husband needs to find a way to open up communication with his son. If this son won’t take a phone call from his father, then an email or a letter might open things up just a little.  Also, depending on the nature of your husband’s relationship with his ex-wife (this boy’s mother), he might want to enlist his ex-wife’s help, at least, to deliver a letter to his/their son.  In my opinion, your husband needs to start the communication by saying something like…

“I am writing to apologize for my role in our argument two weeks ago.  I didn’t realize it then, but it is clear to me now that what I said (or the way I said it) was hurtful to you.  For that, I am so sorry.  You are my son and I love you very much – and I never wanted to hurt you.  I realize that you have been angry at me.  I understand that, and I hope we can get together soon to figure this out together.”

As I wrote in my response to a similar question in March, 2004, “Parents have a responsibility to provide a psychologically and physically safe home environment for their children.”  In this case, as it is with many divorced and step-families, the “home environment” usually includes more than one actual home.  These “two-home” dynamics, typically, only add to the general sense of confusion and awkwardness that children of divorced parents feel, particularly when they find themselves in some unexpected conflict or argument with their own parent.

These are tricky dynamics.  This dad may feel like he is right, but if he holds to that too firmly, he risks losing some of the connection he has with his son.  Ironically, this son may even agree with his father’s perspective more than he is willing or able to admit, but his current anger and hurt may be inhibiting his ability to talk more openly about the whole thing.   Usually, teenagers’ oppositional (refusing to communicate!!) behaviors are, in reality, reflections of their own deeper insecurities, and of the degree to which they often feel powerless in the face of their older and bigger parents!  This boy’s refusal to speak, and his refusal to come to your house, are examples of his having gone “on strike.”  In general, when teenagers go “on strike,” it is usually out of a desperate need or wish to have their parents pay attention to them in qualitatively different ways, to listen to them more carefully, and ultimately, to work WITH them to resolve the conflict(s) that prompted the “strike” in the first place.

In my practice, I have seen teenagers “hold grudges” about their parents for a lot longer than two weeks.  I have seen teenagers’ feelings of disillusionment, hurt and anger – all associated with unresolved conflicts with their parents (mostly, fathers!!) – fester and worsen, and eventually, manifest as chronic depression for the teenagers.  Sadly, many of these conflicts could have been resolved long before they had even begun to interfere with the ongoing development of these parent-child (father-son!!) relationships.  Believe it or not, your step-son’s refusal to speak (for now) and his refusal to come to your home (for now) are gifts!  They are clear communications from a son to his father about how hurt and disillusioned he feels.  Encourage your husband to “listen” to these silent messages – they speak volumes!  Encourage your husband to respond to his son from a position of true empathy, from a place of understanding this conflict from his son’s perspective.  Re-connecting with this boy is the most important issue here, NOT “making him” comply with your/your husband’s demands.


Good luck!

David L. Gleason, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist