After Divorce, Child Safety, and Visitation Can Be Hot Topics
Circumstances can arise when custodial parents must act in the child’s best interests in ways their ex-spouse may not like. In the process, anger can be provoked and conflict created, with custodial parents taking stands that the ex-spouse may consider offensive or unjust.
What kinds of stands? The most common two are for child safety and for child support. In both instances, custodial parents (because they have custodial responsibility) must look out for the child’s welfare by monitoring conditions and treatment while on visitation and by assessing ongoing financial needs at home.
Taking issue with the non-custodial parent’s conduct is not easy when that former partner feels that what happens during visitation is none of the custodial parent’s business. Nor is it any easier to take issue with monetary contribution when the former partner believes the initial settlement for child support should remain the final one.
If this is the case, the non-custodial parent is wrong on both counts. Custodial parents have ongoing responsibility for evaluating safety of visitation and for ensuring the child’s adequate support at home.
Custodial parents need to speak up to their ex-spouse about visitation concerns that the child only feels secure voicing at home. Comments like, “I’m left alone too much” or “I get frightened about what might happen” are statements that must be taken seriously. Custodial parents should first listen and then ask the child to specify what is happening or not happening to cause these feelings.
After telling the child what they are going to do, custodial parents must then inform the non-custodial parent about conduct and circumstances that are causing the child to feel unsafe.These concerns should be expressed in terms of reported behaviors and reported situations that occur. Although the non-custodial parent may respond with information that modifies the child’s report, it is with the child’s feelings that the custodial parent is most concerned.
The custodial parent should not be interested in making accusations against the ex-spouse, but should instead want to help make visitation feel as comfortable as possible for the child. To this end, the custodial parent is giving the non-custodial parent information that may be useful in making visitation a more positive experience. The custodial parent needs to send his or her ex-spouse this message: “I want you to know that I value your time with our child and want that time to be beneficial to you both. This is why I am sharing this information with you now.”
Approached in this supportive manner, the non-custodial parent will, in many cases, make modifications that improve the quality of visitation. Of course, what the child reports working well on visitation should also be shared with the non-custodial parent so he or she can be aware of what positive practices to continue.
Where the non-custodial parent reacts in denial about the child’s reported sense of danger, however, stubbornly refusing to admit that visitation is exposing the child to risk of injury, custodial parents may have to take a protective stand by enlisting the help of relevant social authorities. Sometimes just knowing that outside officials have been notified is enough to cause the non-custodial parent to behave more responsibly.
To knowingly place the child in visitation at the effect of neglect, abuse, alcoholic drinking, other substance problems, or recklessness when with the non-custodial parent is irresponsible on the part of the custodial parent. He or she, aware of the dangers, is putting the child in harm’s way.
No matter how well parental divorce is managed, visitation between separate households can still be a complicated experience for parents and children alike. Understand some of these complexities, and the adjustments can be eased.
When considering visitation, remember differences. It was irreconcilable differences between partners’ ways and wants that caused the marriage to dissolve. After divorce, those incompatibilities that initially drove the couple apart usually grow more pronounced, becoming evident in different lifestyles that former partners lead, and different households that they run.
Because visitation requires children to bridge these differences, going back and forth takes getting used to. The transition is complicated. It requires more than simply walking out of one door and in through another. Children must let go of one family frame of reference and then re-engage with another. Out goes one parent’s family agenda and in comes the agenda of the other.
Try to imagine how your child might feel. He or she now needs to learn to live two different ways, depending on which parent they are living with. And when they are unable to keep the differences straight and the parent they’re staying with becomes angry, this can put unnecessary stress on children.
Management of their children’s reentry into the home is one of the most complicated tasks custodial parents have to master. Pressures of getting back together and possibilities for misunderstanding can create an increased vulnerability to hurt and conflict. Consider the problem of timing.
A custodial parent, happy to see the children after a weekend, holiday, or vacation separation, wants an affectionate and communicative reunion. One child, however, remains distant and cool, only wanting to be left alone. The custodial parent thinks: Why am I being treated this way? Haven’t I been missed at all? Isn’t the child glad to be home?”
The answer to the last two questions is yes. The child has missed the custodial parent and is glad to be home. However, he or she has not let go of the visit with the other parent and still want to reflect on the memory of their being together. Thus preoccupied, the child acts removed and unresponsive, wanting time to emotionally close out the visit. He or she loves the custodial parent, but is not ready to reconnect and open up just yet.
In this situation, custodial parents are well advised, after communicating welcome, to give the child privacy and space. Rather than treat this aloofness as rejection, respect it for what it really is: a period of difficult adjustment for which the child needs some time alone.
This strategy is even more important after a bad visit, when the child’s expectations were disappointed or some troublesome incident occurred. In either case, the child may have avoided speaking up, not wanting to make a disagreeable situation worse. As soon as he or she returns home, however, out come the injured feelings. The unhappy child picks on a sibling or at a custodial parent, looking for a fight to get that pent up anger, disappointment, or frustration out.
Again, the custodial parent needs not to take this treatment personally. Instead, say to the child, “It sounds like you may have had a hard visit. Take some time alone to settle down, then we can talk about what happened if you like.”
Over the course of many visitations, not every one will go well. When they don’t, the child may bring hard feelings home. Acting them out in hurt or anger, however, although understandable, is not acceptable. The child must learn to talk these feelings out in such a way that communication brings relief without inflicting harm on others. His or her custodial parent is happy to be a sympathetic listener, but not a whipping post.
Probably the most painful re-entries occur when divorce is unreconciled, and parents remain actively embittered toward each other. In this unforgiving circumstance, the child cannot act pleased to see one parent without offending the other. Constant pressure to take sides is increased by visitation when parents treat leaving their home as a betrayal of loyalty, as though the child were taking up residence in the enemy’s camp.
In either household, the child may feel resentment and hear slander from one parent toward the other. One can sympathize with the weary 12-year-old who angrily declared, “Sometimes I wish I could just divorce both of them and live alone!” In this situation, warring parents may want to ponder the question: Which do you love more? Loving your child or loving to hate each other?