One of the most heartbreaking things you can hear your child say is “I don’t want to leave you,” yet they have to go away for the weekend. Even worse if you’re the non-custodial parent is when a child is visiting you and he wants to go back home. No matter how heart wrenching that moment may be, how you handle it will mean the difference between your child resenting you and appreciating you. Both custodial and non-custodial parents can benefit from this information, because ultimately it is all about the children’s welfare.
Divorce takes a toll on everyone involved–none more than the children. Lawyers such as Dummit Fradin remind people that not everything is settled during the divorce. You also need to make arrangements for separation or even custody. The long process of divorce and making arrangements is draining for a child and can make them easily feel unstable. For the children whose divorced or separated parents have agreed upon visitation arrangements, the child’s opinion has not been considered. Not including children in the development of a visitation schedule–albeit ceremonially–will backfire in some cases. When children are at least four years old, they should be included in an amicable conversation with both parents. Discuss the common ground of love and security. Detail the plan and the benefits of enjoying time with both parents. Display concern and understanding for any apprehensions the child may have. Be willing to have this conversation as often as necessary.
If a child wants to go home while in your care, allow the child to speak with the custodial parent by phone or video conferencing. This should be a time when the child can freely express concerns and healthy emotions. If you are in the role of custodial parent, you should encourage that the child stay by reinforcing the benefits that have been discussed in previous conversations. As long as there is no suspected danger, support the visit and reassure the child that he will return home soon. The parents should debrief post visit to identify possible triggers that cause anxiety which can be avoided during future visits.
Some parents have found that adjusting the schedule worked for their situation. For example, instead of every other weekend overnight visitation, they rotate between four-hour visitation and overnight stays. During the four-hour period, the child and parent complete activities and dine together. The child knows she will return home that night and the anxiety level is low. The comfort of knowing that she will be at home leads to an enjoyable time together not overshadowed by being taken away. In two weeks the child stays overnight but appreciates how the non-custodial parent understands her feelings. The resentment is avoided and the parent is welcomed in the child’s life.
It is also imperative that non-custodial parents come around their children during times that are not tied to visitation. School plays, sporting events, and recitals should be attended on visitation and non-visitation times alike. Children will not feel as if you only attend events on “your weekend.” This type of involvement is especially important as children get older. They talk to peers and learn or naturally become aware that courts may have had a hand in deciding visitation schedules. Don’t let your children believe that the only reason you come to see them is due to court order.
In summary, communication is paramount in making sure visitation is an enjoyable time for the children involved. Show understanding, yet be clear about the future benefits of spending time with both parents. Keep lines of communication open during visitation with the non-custodial parent. Debrief as necessary to make adjustments to the schedule or to identify triggers for homesickness. Most importantly, be a part of your child’s life outside of visitation by attending events to show your ongoing support and love. Avoiding resentment while being firm is a delicate dance, but with consistent communication, it can be accomplished with lasting results.