Monday, July 29, 2013
Be Cruel to Be Kind? Non-Custodial Parents and Visits With Children
Not long ago I received an e-mail from a young father I’ll call Derek. He had read a post about children’s grief from my old Psychology Today blog (interestingly, although they kicked me off, they don’t take the old posts down!) and was wondering how it applied to his child and himself.
Derek said he had a 15-month-old daughter with whom he had a strained relationship. From other things he said, I guessed that he had not been sharing a household with the child and her mother for perhaps a year. Derek referred to what he called the “alienating behavior” of the child’s mother. He seemed to be referring to decisions limiting his time with the child. He had been given two hours a week visitation by court order; the mother had originally been more liberal with the time, but following a quarrel in recent weeks she had cut back to the court-ordered time.
Derek felt the child was confused by this change in contact time. He said he was thinking about whether it was best to stop all contact until the adults worked out their difficulties, and inquired about my opinion on this. He had a visit scheduled for that night and was wondering whether to cancel it. He also said that his lawyer and a psychologist had advised him to “go with his gut.” I was just starting to cook dinner when I saw his e-mail, but I immediately replied: “Derek, go and see her. I’ll write more later.”
Here’s what I wrote to him later:
“I hope you did go, or will go if it’s still in the future, to see your daughter.
I think your gut is telling you what would be most comfortable for you, not what would be best for your daughter-- and you are far from the first estranged parent whose gut has made this statement. It’s tough to be with a child who is in distress and to know you can’t do much about it. Most of us adults would rather avoid this, and if we can’t see the child as much as we want, we want to just bite the bullet and cut off contact.
But the situation is very different from the little girl’s point of view. Whichever parent she is with, she experiences the pain of separation from the other. When she comes to you, she may be upset because she is away from her mother and because she has been away from you. (It would make more sense if we humans could be happy when we’re reunited with someone who left us, and we think we will be, but on the whole we’re not---just wait until you lose her in a crowd and then find you feel like punishing her when you find her again!) When she goes back to her mother, she probably “acts up” because she was separated from her mother and now has to be separated from you.
This is going to go on for several years no matter how much or how little you see her; in fact, it will be worse if you see her little. It’s for you as the adult to manage what’s happening as well as you can.
You can’t just decide you’ll split and come back when things are more settled. For one thing, they may not get more settled for a long time (excuse my directness, but I’ve divorced too and have even been through the “ex at your child’s wedding” scenario). For another, if you stop seeing your child she will do her task of grieving for you and finish it. When you come back, if it’s soon she’ll give you the cold shoulder and if it’s later she will regard you as a stranger. You will have a great deal of trouble re-establishing the relationship.
My advice is, see her as often as you can. Keep in mind that how often this will be depends on your ex’s decisions and on yours too--- but it does not depend on what your daughter thinks and wants, so whatever you do she will still feel somewhat helpless and abandoned. Try to have your time with her be quiet and well-organized, and don’t include in it any other adults, even your parents. When with her, follow her lead in play as much as you can (this does not mean you have to give her chocolate cake for dinner or let her bite you). If you don’t know how to do this, read something about “Floor Time”.
You need to make sure that her mother understands these issues and does not assume it “just upsets the child” to see you. It’s separating from loved people that upsets her, not seeing you.”
There’s no question, it’s difficult for adults to deal with children’s reactions to separations and reunions. How many foster parents can cope with gradually relinquishing a loved foster child to longer and longer visits to a biological parent? Most often, the foster parents just say “if he’s got to go, just let him go, we can’t take this”. Parenting plans in divorce often fail to recognize the agonies for the child and for the parents of having the child go back and forth from one to the other, and of course I’m referring not to a parent’s personal discomfort but to the pain of watching the child’s reactions. We need to provide parental education and emotional support for these difficult periods, rather than supplying parents with terms like “alienating behavior”. Their “gut feelings” won’t do the trick here, because their guts naturally cry out for escape from what is happening. They feel as if they want to “be cruel in order to be kind” to the child, but that is not the solution to this problem.