What to Do When a Child Rejects One Parent

Anna spoke quietly in the Peace after Divorce group at her church…

7172110_sMy son doesn’t speak to me since we separated. He lives in my house but doesn’t want anything to do with me. He wants to go live with his dad. He says he hates me.

Layered on top of the pain and grief of divorce, Anna is now facing the rejection of her son. Not a simple issue.  Being rejected by a child can leave a parent feeling desperate and totally out of control.

Recognizing a Serious Problem

Like an adult, a child faces many adjustments as the result of separation and divorce. Normal adjustment challenges related to divorce shouldn’t be confused with becoming alienated from one parent. A child may be grumpy with you or not want to go somewhere with you as a part of the normal course of being a child even if divorce was not a factor.

On the other hand, if the child is showing a pattern of rejecting one parent a problem may be developing. If you are the rejected parent, the child may:

  • Express defiance exclusively toward you or about you.
  • Lose sight of happy memories of time spent with you.
  • Avoid contact with you for no apparent reason.
  • Stay aloof when with you.
  • Verbalize hate toward you.
  • Offer ambiguous reasons when asked about his or her anger toward you.
  • Reject anyone viewed as an extension of you, for example, your friends and family.
  • Choose to always side with the other parent when that parent is in conflict with you.

Why Does This Happen?

If a child starts to hate and avoid a parent it can be easy for the preferred parent to suspect abuse but that may be an unfair judgement. In general, abused children tend to avoid outright confrontation with the abuser and are generally hesitant to report abuse because they fear retaliation from the abuser. However, if you have any reason to suspect abuse get professional intervention immediately.

Child-parent relationships are complex and separation and divorce add to the complexity. Alienation from one parent during or after separation/divorce is more likely to occur from the reasons below.

The child…

  • Picks up on and absorbs negative emotions the preferred parent has toward the rejected parent. This may be the result of overt bad-mouthing or more subtle expressions of the preferred parent’s thoughts and feelings.
  • Blames the rejected parent for the divorce.
  • Connects with the parent they feel has been wronged.
  • Has bonded with the parent who is less available due to unmet needs.
  • May not feel welcomed in the rejected parent’s home.

How Does Each Parent Contribute to the Problem?

Despite the child’s inability to explain why they now reject one parent, behavior happens for a reason. Actually, more likely a complex pattern of reasons. It can help to identify how each parent contributes to the problem.

This is a time for problem solving not blame.

Absorbing the negative emotions of one parent toward the other parent may have started long before the divorce. Sometimes a parent will unconsciously feed into a child’s hostile feelings toward the other parent. Be sure your comments about their other parent include positive statements rather than complete negativity.

Most parents understand that children need a positive relationship with both parents. Yet, some parents are so angry with their ex that they intentionally act to create division between the children and their other parent. Each child in a family may respond differently to this influence.  Nonetheless, divisive behavior on the part of a parent undermines each child’s ability to have a healthy loving relationship with both parents.

Ideally parents will work together to co-parent for the good of their children. This is unfortunately not always the case. For this reason, a disparaging remarks clause is often included in divorce agreements directing that neither parent should badmouth the other parent to the children.

If your ex is badmouthing you to your children and you cannot reason with him/her to correct the situation, you may have to fall back on this clause in your agreement. If your agreement is not yet final, be sure to speak with your attorney about including a disparaging remark clause.  Also, find out your legal recourse should your ex violates this clause.

Positive Steps Parents Can Take

Cooperate and Communicate with Your Child’s Other Parent

  • Don’t jump to conclusions. If you are the rejected parent, don’t be quick to blame your ex for your child’s behavior. If you do, you will most assuredly reduce that person’s willingness to cooperate with you. The other parent may not be intentionally driving a wedge between you and your child.
  • Reason with your ex about the welfare of your child. Work together if at all possible to address the issue of the child rejecting one parent.
  • Be nice to your child’s other parent. When your child sees that you two can get along it will lessen his need to choose between you.

Communicate with Your Child

  • Build dialog with your child. Encourage communication but don’t force the issue. Make communicating with you safe by showing empathy and understanding. Blowing up at your child when your child blows up at you is counterproductive.

Don’t Divide

  • Don’t manipulate your child to side with you against the other parent. You may feel comforted if your child prefers you to your ex but that is not healthy for your child.
  • Don’t badmouth the other parent. This can backfire and drive the child further from you if you are the rejected parent. If you are the preferred parent, it can damage your child by inhibiting a positive relationship with their other parent. Keep in mind that your child is half from you and half from their other parent. Demeaning the other parent can also inadvertently leave your child feeling demeaned.
  • Don’t ask your child to be the go-between in communications with the other parent. This can be very stressful for your child and build resentment toward you.
  • Don’t assume the child will be better off without the other parent (unless there is abuse).

Invest in Your Child

  • Even if the child is giving you grief, stay involved. Don’t give up on them. Give love, support, and guidance.
  • Spend time with your child. Being with your child is the only way to repair a damaged relationship.
  • Stay calm with your child. Try to understand what your child is experiencing. Patience will win out over anger.
  • Engage with your child, don’t ignore them when they are with you.

Be Proactive

  • Address the problem as soon as it starts to appear. The earlier you act the better.
  • If you are the preferred parent, encourage contact with the rejected parent.
    • If you give the child control over whether or not they have contact with the rejected parent the alienation may grow.
    • Be okay when your child spends time with their other parent. Let your child know you’ll be fine while he or she is gone.

Have Empathy

  • Recognize that the unfamiliar can be scary for a child. It may take a while for a child to feel at home in each household.
  • Help create a sense of belonging for the child in your home. Establish routines. Create a space that the child can call their own. Being allowed to take a favorite toy to each parent’s home may help increase a child’s comfort level.

Accept Age-Related Developmental Issues

  • Realize that teenagers are teenagers. They are at an age where autonomy and identity are big developmental issues. Spending time with peers becomes more important than spending time with parents. Work with this reality to schedule your time with your child. Trying to work against this reality will only frustrate both of you.  Be flexible.

Equip Yourself and Your Child with Support

  • Dealing with a child who rejects you is stressful.  Give yourself and the child time and resources to work through the divorce experience. Build a support network of family and friends for yourself and your child.
  • Guide your child in positive ways to handle challenging situations with the other parent.
  • If you’re not able to resolve problems on your own you may find it very helpful to seek counseling for yourself as a parent as well as for your child.


When a child decides to reject one parent it can be heartbreaking for that parent. It is important to determine how each parent is contributing to this problem which can range from mild to severe. Each parent can take steps toward supporting healing between the rejected parent and the child.

Parent-child relationships are complex. Separation and divorce can increase the complexity. Early intervention is important. There are many things parents can do to contribute to healing if alienation is addressed before it becomes extreme. If the problem is severe or escalating consider seeking professional help.

Making Information and Ideas Work

  1. Is your child rejecting a parent? What symptoms do you see that this may be progressing to or may have become a serious problem?
  2. Can you pinpoint any causes for this problem?
  3. Are you in anyway contributing to the problem?
  4. What changes do you need to make to facilitate a better relationship between this child and the rejected parent?
  5. Do you need to seek counseling to help you with this issue?

Talk with God

Ponder this reading and share your thoughts with God. Listen so that the Holy Spirit might fill you with wisdom and peace. What concrete actions do you need to take based on what God is saying to you?

Christian Inspiration:

Start children off on the way they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6

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About the Author: 

Renee is a life-skills counselor and a Christian who has been through divorce.  Her writing offers practical help for coping with and healing from divorced while at the same time building a closer walk with God.  Learn more about her book, Peace after Divorce.

Image Copyright: photokitchen / 123RF Stock Photo

22 Comments on What to Do When a Child Rejects One Parent

  1. Tammy Erwin says:

    Pathetic attempt of how people destroy the very value of a mother by blaming her and keeping her spirit down. Yuck

    • Renee Ettline says:

      Tammy, It’s indeed sad when this happens but it can happen to both mom’s and dads. Thank you for commenting.

  2. Toni Martindale says:

    It has happened to me. Both father and husband badmouth me to daughter, 15 years now. My son has been very courageous to keep up a relationship with me. I’m grateful for that. With her husband and father combining forces it’s hard to hope. I’ve never seen my three year old grandson, she didn’t tell me when he was born. She may have had another child by now. I’m 63 and may live another 20 or so years. We have both lost so much. I love my daughter and have reached out to her this many years.

    • Renee Ettline says:

      Toni, thank you for your comments. I’m sure that is difficult. May you find peace.

    • Jerrilyn says:

      Don t give up. Keep reaching out for a relationship. My friend s 15 year old grandson had been estranged from her for 13 years. Her daughter was 16 when he was born. My friend helped her raise him but then family tensions led to the girl moving out to raise him on her own. My friend became estranged from them. Her daughter was very stubborn and refused reconciliation. This weekend the boy was knifed in a park altercation with older teens and died. The funeral is tomorrow. Both women are now alone. I am encouraging my friend to continue to reach out to her daughter. The lesson is that no one knows how long we have on this earth.

      • Renee Ettline says:

        Jerrilyn thanks for your comment. Your points are well made.

    • Constance Moyo says:

      I’m so sorry you going through this. We share a similar story. It’s very sad. But there is hope.

  3. GammaGM says:

    God hates divorce. As for me, I can totally see why.

    • Renee Ettline says:

      Yes, I think God hates divorce because of what it does to His children. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Michael M says:

    my ex wife sought to deliberately alienate me from my kids, especially my daughter and now that she is a teen I rarely see her. It is sad that an ex will go to such lengths to punish their ex-spouse not realizing that ultimately they are hurting the child. It takes me all my strength not to resent this abusive and manipulative on the part of my ex. Regrettably there is little I can do because she won’t answer the phone and rarely texts unless she needs money. This is probably the most awful unintended consequence of divorce. No parent deserves to lose their kids in this insidious manner.

    • Renee Ettline says:

      You’re so right Michael. Children should never be used as pawns by their parents.

    • Rambo says:

      Michael, I am in the same situation but there is court ordered therapy required. Be persisitent and visit the child at school or somewhere in person. Unbelievable what a vindictive parent will do to the point of falsely stating the ex was a wife beater to cause alienation. This all sad and many folks dont think of family destruction and kids. just work on the marriage and preserve it. That’s so much easier.

  5. I was married 32 years. We adopted our daughter when she was 6 months old, just 17 years ago. I loved her from the day she met me as a baby. My wife and I are now separated and getting divorced. My little girl won’t as much as even return a one word text.
    I text her almost every day and wish her a good night but no reply. I asked my ex about it but she won’t even talk to me, just text with a one liner. I asked about our daughter not communicating and my ex said … she has a mind of her own! I am heartbroken, Shed tears everyday, wake at night and think. Its affecting my work and I have no desire for much of anything.

    • Renee Ettline says:

      Gary, Thank you for commenting. What you are experiencing can be understandably devastating and is possibly compounded by your daughter’s age. A communication gap between 17 year olds and their parents is an age-old problem. Her choice to not correspond at all is especially difficult for you I’m sure. Have you talked with a counselor about the best way to relate to your daughter given your specific circumstances? That might prove helpful. Meanwhile, you have a second part to your challenge and that is how to cope with this in a way that doesn’t affect your sleep, your work, and your desire for life. As hard as it is to believe, you can learn to accept that there may be little you can do about the situation right now. You can find peace for yourself by turning this over to God. Sometimes our very intensity to have a relationship with another person can in fact further turn that person away. Realize that God wants what’s best for you. Believe that he has the bigger picture. Continue to love your daughter but trust God to heal this relationship no matter how long it takes. I will share your story with our prayer leader so that we may all pray for you and this situation. I pray that you find peace.

  6. Hurt says:

    Married at 19 and now 18yrs later my wife and me are separated and filing for divorce we have two boys 16 & 12 I’ve always had to work alot to make ends meet now for that reason my boys don’t want to see or talk to me they told me I’m not thought of as a dad and I’ve never done anything or been there for them last conversation we had they told me if I go through with the divorce then there done with me. At the same time I can’t go back home to my wife ive stayed as long as I can in a verbally and physically abusive relationship it’s embarrassing that happened so many times but I stayed in it to be with my kids and in hopes tomorrow would be a better day

    • Cynthia says:

      I can relate to the pain you are going through. I have a lot of support from friends and family it keeps me strong but it does not take the pain away my ex makes me look like the bad parent even when I never invited my children to our wedding. I wish he would stop saying nasty things about me. It becomes a competition now one I dont want to have. Think of positive things in your life each day. Focus on where you want your future to head. I have learnt not to be dragged down never forget how abused you were your ex will keep trying to abuse you remember why you left in the first place. Just be patient kind and appreciate when you do get time to even speak to your children just listen to them no judgement they feel pain too.

  7. Cynthia says:

    I married at 16 husband was 19 rough 32 years of marriage my ex husband was extremely abusive and an alcoholic tried several times to leave him. My children are now 30 and 24 I separated for good 4 years ago and found my new husband and have been married now for almost a year now. Sadly my ex gets both my children to be a go between. I have lost contact with both my children its devastating. They were not invited to my wedding too much fighting going on. The once father they were afraid of has now become their preferred parent. I am lost and cry all the time. My escape from abuse and torment is costing me my relationship with my children

    • Renee Ettline says:

      I can hear your pain in your words. Pray for your children and trust them to God. It’s hard to turn them over to God but in doing so there is peace. God is close to the broken hearted. Trust Him. Thank God that you are free from abuse. Ask God to bless your new marriage. Focus on cultivating the joy in that relationship. Read Philippians 4:8. It tells us “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Verse 9 goes on to say, “And the peace of God will be with you.” God bless you Cynthia.

  8. Rosemarie says:

    I was married for 21 years to a very passive aggressive husband who would give me the silent treatment instead of communicating. The silence was killing me. It took me 5 years to make up my mind to leave him. When I did, it was the hardest thing to do and my now 17 year old son hates me. My other son who is now 20 years old is totally supportive. However, the 17 year old wanted to live with his father and is very much like him . They both ignore me and my son tells me when he sees me how much he hates me to the core. The things he says to me are so hurtful that I feel sick after I see him. I am a good mother, and no one is perfect. I was a stay at home mom from the day my boys were born and was always there for them. I was very open with them. I love them. I felt like a single mom most of the time because my husband was always working and hardly ever home . There was no communication and a lot of ignoring and no support from him when my younger son started verbally abusing me when he was 13. My husband would never stick up for me and would side with my son. This gave my son permission to continue his abuse. Now he lives with his father and I still get the verbal abuse . Long story short, my ex taught my son how to treat me and now that they are living together it continues. I am heartbroken, sad, and lost. Thank God my older son is in my life. My days are consumed with why??? Why does one son love me and the other hate me. I loved them both since the day they were born. I was there for both of them the same. Their father was never home and when he was home there was no family time. I had to beg for it and that didn’t even work. So I am finding it hard to understand how a good mother can be hated so much. I truly believe my ex taught my son to hate me because he knew he could. He needed someone “on his side” because my older son was able to see through him. My younger son was easier to manipulate. It is the most heartbreaking experience in my life. I still tell my son how much I love him every chance I get. He tells me he doesn’t care. I pray everyday that God sees and will help my son come back to me. He had a good childhood and he refuses to see it. He just remembers the last four years of a very unhappy marriage.

    • Renee Ettline says:

      Rosemarie, I can’t imagine how much this hurts. Keep praying for your son. May yours be the story of the son who returns (Luke 15:11-32). It is hard to accept that this seems to be out of your control but it sounds like it is so leave it in God’s hands. Focus your attention on those things you can control in your life. How does a mother just let go of her son? Only by knowing that there is one far greater. Give him over to our Heavenly Father.

      • Rosemarie says:

        Thank you so much. I tried leaving it to God so many times but lose faith. I will try again and again because I know God sees what a good mother I am. I must be patient. It is the hardest thing ever. Bless you,

        • Renee Ettline says:

          I’m sure it is the hardest thing ever. I know a man who lost affection of all of his children. It hurt him deeply and he suffered a long time before he finally realized that he had to emotionally let it go (golly that’s hard). But, he realized that if he didn’t, the whole rest of his life would be consumed by it. He prays for his children and still hopes they will reconcile someday but he had to emotionally and mentally stop stewing in it in order to find peace and joy in the life he still had. Letting go also allowed him to step back and stop projecting intense feelings of loss every time he had contact with his children. That in itself relieved some stress. God knows your heart. May he bless you with the peace that passes all understanding.

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