Fatherly Advice
Dr. Wade F. Horn
President, The National Fatherhood Initiative

Title:  Don't Force Teen to Visit Parent

Date:  December 26, 2000

Q:  My husband and I have been married for eight years and have three young
children together.  He also has a thirteen-year-old daughter who lives with
her mom and stepdad a couple of hours from where we live.

Beginning this past summer, his daughter has been sad and anxious much of the
time she is at our house and has made it clear that she doesn't want to be
here.   When my husband tells her he will be picking her up for his
court-ordered visitation, she cries on the phone and says she doesn't want to

She now sees us as ogres, or at the very least a bunch of boring, unnecessary
people who are cruel because we're making her miss out on her friends and
activities when she has to spend time with us.

At this point, we don't know what to do next.  I have suggested family
counseling.  My husband, on the other hand, believes we should just tell her
she has to come and that it's up to her to make the best of things while she
is here.

Do you think she will come around eventually on her own or should we try to
intervene by seeking professional help?

A:  In cases of divorce, one parent is generally awarded primary physical
custody of the children and the other is given visitation rights.  Usually,
visitation with the non-custodial parent is provided for on a strict
schedule, such as every other weekend and one month in the summer.

Ordering human relationships according to such strict schedules can be
difficult.  There is something artificial about being able to see mom or dad
(whomever is the non-custodial parent) just every other weekend.  It renders
time spent with one's own children more akin to a date than part of the
normal flow of family life.

Nevertheless, strict visitation schedules seem to work reasonably well for
relatively young children.  That's because young children are used to their
parents telling them where to go and when.

As children get older, however, their focus often shifts from the family to
peers.  That's usually a good thing.  Peer relationships help adolescents
develop the social skills necessary for adult functioning, facilitate the
development of a sense of personal identity, and aid in efforts to achieve
independence and autonomy from their family.

    Unfortunately, it can also wreck havoc on post-divorce visitation
schedules.  As participation in organized athletics and youth groups, or just
hanging out with friends, becomes increasingly important in the lives of
adolescents, trips to a non-custodial parent's home, often hundreds if not
thousands of miles away, usually doesn't make it to the top of their "to do"

    Hence, it is not uncommon for children, as they enter adolescence, to
begin to protest about spending time with the non-custodial parent.  When
they were younger, such protests were easily overcome with a combination of
distraction and firmness.  Adolescents, on the other hand, begin to vote with
their feet.

When this happens, the worst thing a non-custodial parent can do is to insist
their adolescent visit under threat of punishment.  Doing so only serves to
engender resentment and even hostility toward the non-custodial parent.

Instead, non-custodial parents need to take the longer view.  That means
understanding their adolescent's shifting priorities and making some
allowance for them.  That doesn't mean disappearing from their adolescent's
life; but it does mean allowing the adolescent more control over when he or
she sees the non-custodial parent.

In this situation, rather than insisting his daughter come for his scheduled
visitation, your husband should invite her.  If she declines, don't make a
big deal out of it; just say you'll call again next week.  But don't stop
there.  In addition, he should try to stay in touch with her on as frequent a
basis as possible without requiring her to come to your home.  E-mail, for
example, is an excellent way to send a daily "I love you" note and for them
to keep in frequent, if not daily, contact with each other.

He should also continue to attend public events in which she is involved,
going to her sporting events, for example, or parents' night at her school.
That way, she will know he is making an effort to see her and not simply
demanding that she come to see him.

I know this is easier said than done.  Many non-custodial parents already
feel disenfranchised from the lives of their children.  The courts don't help
matters by insisting that if visitation is to occur at all, it must occur on
a fixed schedule.  Fixed schedules sound good in court, but they don't work
as well in real life.

Forcing her to visit, however, is not the answer.  Instead, he should make
himself available to her and demonstrate an understanding of her need to be
with friends and involved in peer activities.  And he should have confidence
his daughter will eventually come around - maybe not this year or even next,
but eventually.  Doing otherwise risks building up an ever-expanding
reservoir of resentment that will almost assuredly lead to a break when his
daughter comes of an age when he can no longer legally insist she visit him.

Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a
clinical child psychologist, and co-author of several books on parenting
including the Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book (Meredith, 1998) and
the Better Homes and Gardens New Teen Book (Meredith, 1999).  Send your
question about dads, children or fatherhood to: The National Fatherhood
Initiative, 101 Lake Forest Blvd, Suite 360, Gaithersburg, MD  20877, or
e-mail him at NFI1995@aol.com.

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