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Co-parenting has many benefits, but can also come with hurdles. What should you do when your child (suddenly) doesn't want to spend time with your ex?

Co-parenting can, research reveals, have wonderful benefits for children of divorced or separated parents — with joint-custody arrangements in which kids spend at least a third of their total time with each parent being especially beneficial. In families where neither parent is abusive or neglectful, such an arrangement tends to lead to better emotional health, academic achievement, and physical health. This is true even for toddlers, and even in situations where the two co-parents didn't exactly part as friends and don't communicate intimately and effectively, but rather engage in distant "parallel parenting". 

Things can and do go wrong, though, just like in any parenting arrangement. What should divorced or separated single parents whose kids have regularly seen the other parent  until now do when their child voices the idea that they no longer want to spend time with that other parent?

With court-ordered visitation or custody arrangements, this can get legally messy, of course. As a health website, all we can reasonably advise you is to seek legal advice if you need to. In the meantime, though, here's some tips on handling the situation. 

Stay calm

The message that your child no longer wants to spend time with their other parent, or doesn't want to see them right now, can invoke some serious feelings.

Maybe you suspect your child's reaction was caused by the fact that their dad often promises to come visit and then doesn't. Maybe you think your ex's new girlfriend has something to do with the change of heart. Maybe you have serious concerns about your child's safety while they're with the other parent, because they're struggling with substance abuse or have a history of being aggressive. Maybe you have no idea what's going on, but the very idea that your kid doesn't want to see your ex makes all sorts of alarm bells go off anyway. 

Stay calm. 

Panicking or being visibly angry with your ex or your child won't help anyone if you're not sure what's going on yet. Wait until you're feeling OK before you discuss the situation with your child in more detail. 

Finding out why your child doesn't want to see your ex: Talk to your child — but listen more than you talk

Serious conversations are often best wrapped up in casual packaging (see: stay calm), even in the car or while cooking so it doesn't feel too much like "a talk". You do need to find out why your child is reluctant to spend time with their other parent, but to get to the bottom of it, you need to be sure to ask questions without putting words in your child's mouth.

Avoid leading questions like "Did your dad do something bad last time?", and instead pose neutral questions like (depending on the exact situation):

  • How do you feel about seeing your mom again after such a long time?
  • How do you feel when you spend time with your dad?
  • What kind of activities do you think you'd enjoy doing together with your dad?
  • What was your last visit like? What did you enjoy, and what didn't you?
  • Is there anything that would make your visit better? (Or — what could we do to make switching between houses easier on you?)
  • What are some positive and negative aspects of mom's house and dad's house?

Their answers may be as harmless as being annoyed that spending time at dad's house means being away from their best friends, or that going over to mom's means missing out on familiar meals or toys. Sometimes, these things are easily solved. Other times, they won't be. The answer may instead be that "he always promises to show up but never does", or that their relationship with the other parent has been bad for a while.

Unless you have serious concerns about safety that emerge from your conversation, you should also consider asking the other parent to have a similar conversation with your child.

Making spending time with the other parent better

Once you know why your child is feeling this way, you can work on a solution together. Ask your child under what circumstances they'd better enjoy spending time with the other parent or at the other parent's house, and make any reasonable adjustments that may be possible. 

If possible, all get together and decide how to best handle the situation. If you have an OK relationship and are both reasonable people, you may agree to things like:

  • Day visits rather than overnight stays. 
  • Allowing your child to take their pet to the other parent's house. 
  • Spending time with a parent only when the parent doesn't have other obligations and is available to fully focus on quality time. 
  • Spending time with the other parent in your presence.
  • Family counseling to work out hurdles. 

Conclusion

Unless you have safety concerns — in which case you should get the authorities involved — its best to try to find out why your child is reluctant to spend time with the other parent and to work on solutions together. You may be able to do this on your own, or may benefit from professional guidance from a psychologist. 

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