Mary was struggling to get her children ready to see their father, Darren, every weekend. It was always the same story. Her twelve year old would cry; she didn’t want to go. However, her seven-year-old son couldn’t wait to see his dad.

Mary was also struggling with access. She had felt discarded by her ex-husband when she found out that he was leaving her for someone else. She couldn’t hide her deep feelings of grief and anger from her children. Her son didn’t seem to mind as he was pretty small and didn’t quite understand. Her daughter, however, felt her mother’s pain quite profoundly. She felt disloyal and worried every week when she had to leave her mother. Mary didn’t know that her daughter wanted to stay home and protect her. She assumed that she didn’t want to see her father because she didn’t like him. Therefore, Mary also tried to protect her daughter from her father by asking the court to allow less access with her father.

Darren was upset that access was such a weekly struggle. He felt rejected by his daughter and couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to see him. It must be Mary’s fault, he thought. She is poisoning the children. Darren had a hard time having empathy for Mary. He couldn’t understand why she was so upset, as he felt rejected in the marriage. He began to blame Mary for poisoning the children against him.

Darren and Mary were stuck in a never-ending court battle regarding custody. As a result, both were unable to see the role that they played in the situation. Here are some things to consider if your child is refusing access.

1. What is your child feeling? Sometimes children have a hard time saying how they feel because they are afraid that they will hurt one of the parent’s feelings. Children have complex emotions in divorce and often blame themselves.

2. What was your child told on why the marriage ended? If there is another family or person involved, your child might be feeling rejected or abandoned himself. They might have a hard time seeing that it has nothing to do with them.

3. They are protecting you or feel sad for you. Sometimes children feel bad for one of their parents, and they want to protect them. For example, they might feel anxious when they are away because they are worried that their mom or dad is sad or lonely.

Here are some things that you can do to help:

1. Please speak to your children about their feelings. Let them know that none of this is their fault. Let them know that both parents love them, and it is ok for them to love both parents.

2. Let them know, when they are with the other parent, you are ok. You are resting, working and having fun with your friends.

3. If your child is refusing access with you, consider what they might be going through. Understand that they are not rejecting you; they are confused about what they are feeling.

4. Never use the children as leverage against the other parent. This damages your children’s sense of self, self-worth and is considered emotional abuse.

If you are struggling with intense feelings after the divorce, please seek help. If co-parenting and access are challenging, consider reunification therapy as an option to help your family cope with the new changes. Reunification therapy acknowledges how each family member feels and helps to reduce the conflict so that co-parenting can be smoother.

Dr Monica Borschel offers conflict management and reunification therapy online through the MindnLife Clinic in Hong Kong.