Visitation Blues - Easing the Transition Between Two Homes
by Loretta Maase, M.A.
By the time you're officially divorced, you've probably worked out a visitation plan with your ex-spouse. You may have discovered that it's easier for young children to have shorter and more frequent visits with their other parent while older children do better with longer and less frequent visits.
If you're like most parents, you've also discovered that it's very hard for children to leave one home to go to the other.
This doesn’t mean the child doesn’t really want to go to see her other parent or that she is unhappy in the other home. Sometimes children don’t even know why they don’t want to go. It can mean that the child doesn’t want to be reminded of the stress of living in two homes. Quite often it means that a child simply doesn’t want to miss the parent they are currently with. Sometimes children are torn. They look forward to seeing the other parent but are worried about leaving one parent behind. Whatever the reason, should you force them to go? If there’s no reason to suspect abuse, you probably have no choice.
What can you do when your children simply refuse to make the transition between homes? First, don’t take the refusal personally. They’re not choosing one parent over another. Children simply don’t like change. They don’t like to leave you and they don’t like to leave the other parent. So, transitions are naturally difficult for children to make.
The first thing you need to do is take a stand for your children. Because children struggle with the concept of change and transition they tend to manipulate their parents in order to avoid going. It’s important for you to stand firm. Children need to know that the visitation is an obligation.
Children under the age of five can be carried to a car even through tears and protest. Don’t allow a child to manipulate you with tears. Older children may have some say about how long they want to stay and how frequently they have to go, but they don’t have any say about whether or not they must to go. Be certain that you give both younger and older children the message that visitation is mandatory and will happen no matter what. If it’s all right with the other parent, let your children know they can call you in one hour just to say hello and talk for a few minutes.
It’s important at this point not to give into the emotion of the moment and let them stay home. If you are inconsistent about enforcing visitation then your children will have harder transitions. If you accept that children need to visit their other parent then you will project that acceptance when the time comes. Remember, children need both parents. Stand firm.
Children older than five can negotiate the transition somewhat. Give them the message that they must go no matter what, but that they can have some say about how it happens. Do you want to take something with you (favorite game, for example)? Do you want to meet (the other parent) at McDonald’s or the park?
Many teenagers don’t like to visit the other parent because they really just want to see their friends. If you can negotiate this with the other parent, try to arrange for teens to be able to still visit or communicate with their friends even while at the other parent’s home. Remember that friends are truly important to teenagers, no matter what parent they are staying with.
Don’t rush your child into visitations. Children need some time to decompress before and after transitioning between homes. Let your children know an hour before they are to leave that it will be time to go soon. Give them some time and space to be quiet, feel angry, or cry. Ask them if they would like a hug but don’t force it on them.
If children have difficulty returning to your home, tell them you will be back to pick them up in one hour. That way you give them a little more time to prepare for the transition.
RE-ENTRY. When children return, allow ample time for them to adjust and don’t take their silence, anger, or tears personally. Plan on a little decompression time after their visit. Don’t rush off to dinner or an activity. Give your children a little time and space to adjust. You’ll find that visitations get easier over time if you remain consistent, firm, and sensitive during transitions.
If your children show extreme reactions or protest strongly over time it would be wise to seek professional help. A qualified counselor can help determine if this is normal behavior or an indication that something deeper is going on.
©Loretta Maase, M.A. 2009. All Rights Reserved. Loretta Maase, M.A. is a child development and parent education specialist. She has taught parent education since the 1980’s through private practice, foster care, and court-ordered parenting classes.