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
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6 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.

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