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Resist Refuse Dynamics in Parent Child Contact Problem Cases

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(View PowerPoint video at bottom of the page)

"Resist and Refuse Dynamics" (RRD) is a term used to describe a pattern of behavior that can occur in high-conflict family situations where a child or children actively resist or refuse contact with the other parent, despite court orders or agreements. These family dynamics arise from multiple factors including factors within each parent, factors in the coparenting relationship, particular vulnerability of the children. This pattern can be particularly frustrating and distressing for the parent who is being resisted.  However the more favored parent as well as the child or children involved have their own set of stressors.

Resistance or refusal to see a parent may be appropriate when there has been abuse or IPV.  While some children continue to want to spend time with an abusive parent, the safety of the child is paramount to consider. Children who reject a parent due to witnessing domestic violence or having been abused or witness to either, express justified concerns.  It is essential for family law professionals involved in these cases to address safety issues.  In cases with documented safety concerns it may not be appropriate for a children to spend unsupervised time with the parent in question.  It is essential to balance the child’s safety with their need for a relationship with both parents. Cases with safety concerns and where the child is resisting contact fall into a different category than RRD and will not be discussed in this paper.

Why is it important to understand cases of Resist and Refuse Dynamics in a family? Family law professionals, whether judges, attorneys, mediators, parenting coordinators or mental health professionals are likely to encounter these complex and frustrating cases. Family law professionals need a common vocabulary as well as a common approach to these cases in order to be of service to these families. It is essential for any family law professional in RRD cases to have knowledge of family systems theory and practice as well as to understand how holding multiple hypotheses when sitting with members of the family can help keep natural biases and alliances in check. It is also essential to understand the levels of severity in these cases in order to tailor interventions to meet family goals.  Children having to make a choice between two “good-enough” parents (with whom they have had a positive relationship) may suffer long term consequences of the loss of one parent. 

What are some of the causal factors in RRD?  We have ruled out safety concerns and are dealing with two good enough parents who have expressed that the children need a “safe and healthy” relationship with both parents. We also know over time a child can and will feel closer to one parent than the other.  This is normal.  It is only when a child feels or is forced to choose one parent over the other that the problems ensue.

A history of conflict between parents where one parent may talk negatively about the other parent in front of the child or overtly interfere with the parent’s time with the child is certainly one causal factor.  Children may blame one parent for the conflict; previous positive memories and relationships can become viewed as all bad. Parenting difficulties such as harsh discipline, substance misuse, or mental health problems can lead a child to choose one parent over the other. Children who are prone to anxiety or depression may be more likely to be caught up in a loyalty bind.  It is essential to consider the co-parenting relationship, any parenting concerns, the vulnerability of the child, and any critical incidents that have become part of a child’s and parent’s negative narrative about the other parent. [See Power Point for more in depth analysis of RRD].

Other causal factors can be found in external systems.  Extended family in these cases can become involved and polarizing. Litigation, splintered professionals and social media too can play a role.  As professionals working with these families we need to understand the multiple factors in order to find the best solutions.

In working with these families, it is essential to hear and respect child preferences and desires [a voice but not necessarily the final choice]  while ensuring that a child is not being unduly influenced by the more favored parent.  Children caught in loyalty binds or have chosen one parent over the other can feel an enhanced sense of confusion, guilt, anxiety or depression.  Children’s choice of one parent over another may lead to a sense of well-being (“I am not caught any longer”) but may also lead to a sense of isolation and loneliness (“I miss my mom/dad but can’t say or feel that).

What are some paths to resolution in these matters?  For the court, accountability is key.  After careful and thorough assessment of any safety issues, therapeutic intervention with court accountability is essential.  These families need a clear order from the court as to how to proceed with a family therapy intervention.  For attorneys, holding multiple hypotheses about a client while supporting their own unique struggles is very helpful.  While it is tempting to side with the clients point of view only, the Bounds of Advocacy are in effect to factor in the best interests of the children.  For mental health professionals a family therapy intervention involving the whole family, assessing for parenting, co-parenting, child vulnerabilities, and the negative narratives that have taken hold (and may not be accurate) is essential. 

So what has to occur if family therapy is to have the potential for success?  Intimate Partner Violence must have been screened out. A coercive controlling parenting style must be addressed. All parenting styles, boundaries, discipline, affect, steadiness, and mental health must be taken into account.  Clear parenting difficulties may warrant referral to a parenting therapist or parenting coach.  A parenting therapist can help each parent navigate their own emotional response leading to better and more effective communication. The history of co-parenting cooperation or conflict must be understood.  If a family therapist can help the parents address issues and work toward a mutual resolution, family therapy is likely to be more successful.  Child vulnerabilities help guide the intensity of the intervention and may lead to a referral to a child therapist to be part of the team. A child therapist must understand they are part of a team, supporting the family therapy while helping the child through their anger, distrust, or anxiety.

and supportive

What has to occur in family therapy?  After careful assessment of the factors described and a commitment from the family to work on agreed upon goals, the detailed work begins.  A family therapist must help increase the motivation for change; this can occur when the alternatives to working in family therapy are explored and found lacking. A therapist will have laid out the expectations for progress.  If expectations are met the RRD should begin to resolve, both parents should be able to support the agreed on goals, and the child should have engaged with the rejected parent in steps (supported by the favored parent) toward meaningful dialogue. Gradually the relationship should improve.  While there is no clear timeline, if there is no movement in the family after several months of regular meetings, a reassessment as to goals and expectations is necessary.  Sometimes this leads to the necessity of more intensive work; sometimes this leads to a pause in treatment while other avenues are tried; sometimes this leads to a period of no direct contact.  If the goal has been to grow a safe and meaningful relationship and this has not occurred it is essential to examine the possible reasons for lack of success. Once these are examined a new direction may be necessary.

There are pros and cons to a new direction.  If that direction is a more intensive form of therapy it will be because the rejected parent has had a previously positive relationship with the children and has done all the necessary work in therapy, the children have continued to resist or refuse contact, and the favored parent is unable to unwilling to support the goals of a safe and healthy relationship.  While some of these intensive programs purport to have a very high success rate, it is crucial to examine the programs in depth as well as what is meant by “success”.  Sometimes the child is able to reconnect with the previously rejected parent very well, only to lose the relationship with the favored parent.  Goals and expectations for these intensive programs must be determined and understood in advance.

If the new direction is to re-create and enforce a structured parenting plan with time with each parent, it is essential to determine how this will be enforced.  If the new direction is to pause or say goodbye to one’s child for now, there is also work to be done.

In conclusion, Resist and Refuse Dynamics are multi-factored and complex.  Family law professionals must understand the family dynamic, make certain safety is a priority, and not become part of a polarizing dynamic.  Once the factors underlying the RRD are clear, the roles for the judge, the attorney, the mediator, the parenting coordinator, and the family therapist become more defined.  With clear expectations and goals family therapy can help resolve the strained relationship between parent and child.  Children are often caught in the middle in these RRD.  They can suffer both short term and longer term consequences.  It is our job as family law professionals, to approach these cases with care and compassion, always focused on the Best Interests of the Child within their family. 

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