Each year we look for new trends in how families operate and how the law comes in contact with families. The notion that teenage children are in conflict with parents is scarcely new. It can be traced to ancient times and is largely based upon a maturing child’s desire to become independent. When and how this natural process evolves is where the conflict comes into play.
Unfortunately, parents who live separate are rarely in synchronization when these conflicts arise. But in the past year, we have seen an unusual rise in a disturbing trend of child empowerment. It is the child who simply “refuses” to visit or in some cases endure any contact with one parent. There are, of course, situations where parent-child conflict gets out of hand and where that eruption produces physical or emotional abuse or where a brief “time-out” in a relationship is necessary to heal frayed emotions. But the new trend is one of passive rejection. The child essentially announces that he or she has no interest in continuing a parental relationship. In several of these cases we have sought counseling between the child, the estranged parent and a psychologist. The reports we are getting back are not encouraging. The mental health professionals are telling us that the children are in some instances outright denying that there is any problem, they do not want to visit. In others, the children recount in vivid detail events that they perceive as a source of relationship threatening controversy where the event took place years before and have to do with the parent’s conflict and not their experience as a child. The children also demonstrate a propensity to adopt adult labels. The offending parent is an “alcoholic”, a “drug dealer” or “underemployed”. When the professionals try to break through these labels to ascertain the precise nature of the offending conduct, they are reporting a dearth of fact based context or huge exaggeration of relatively innocent conduct. Meanwhile, the children are opposed to even discussion of reconciliation. A parent is labeled as an alcoholic. The parent agrees to abstain during visits. The child announces that this is not really useful. In almost each instance, the mental health professionals are reporting that reconciliation counseling is not having a salutary effect.
We wish we could find an prescription for this issue. Thus far we are advising clients who are being rejected by parents to keep pushing for visits, even if these visits end up being pure formalities. It is our impression that where a child cannot identify a source of the conflict that makes sense, the child is actually making some kind of cry for help. We are insisting that children have a duty to maintain a relationship with a parent unless they can provide a plausible basis for terminating it. Certainly, children who have the right to support certainly owe a filial duty of some kind. But, it is a painful time for both parents and children who are having to deal with this.