Visitation Adjustment for Children of Divorce
by Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
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. “I have to learn to live two different ways, depending on which parent I’m living with. And when I don’t keep the differences straight, sometimes the parent that I’m staying with gets mad.”
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, 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 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 them 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 twelve-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?” It takes parents who have emotionally reconciled the differences between them to honestly support the child’s contact with each other, blessing the child’s passage back and forth between two homes.
© Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D. 2004. All Rights Reserved.