Q. I have a stepdaughter who is four years old. Her real mother whom she visits on weekends is in and out of jail; she has 86 felonies. Each visit leaves the child distraught; she gets depressed and sinks into her shell.
A. This is, indeed, an unusual situation, though it is very common with separated parents. Generally, the child living with the mother goes to the father for the weekend. But the effect of the meeting is the same: the child behaves queerly Ė either loud and noisy or absolutely sad and silent.
Now, the question is how to overcome this problem.
First of all, give up the idea of any kind of therapy; it is not going to help. You, as an adult and parent can do much better.
Basically, there are two different scenarios. The first is somewhat like our reader's, in which the 'other' parent is not normal. The second is of different parenting styles between one home and the other. Here we will focus on the first kind.
There are several features suggestive of such 'poison'. One is that of being unreliable for visits - promising to call or show up, but then failing to do so. Often children desperately hope that, this time, dad will phone, or come, or send a present, and yet, time after time, they are let down again.
It often happens that the other parent either ignores the child or makes him fit into his plans willingly or unwillingly. At the same time he makes tall claims of love and care for the child. This confuses and hurts the child because the actions betray their true feelings, and children are quick to feel that.
An unreliable parent does not only disappoint the child but many times you have to change your plans because the other parent had promised to come and take the child but didnít turn up.
However, the worst scene is when one parent uses the child as a communication channel to the other parent. In such cases, obviously what the poor child is asked to convey are not nice things. In other cases, the parent spends the entire weekend criticizing the custodial parent, which is quite unpalatable to the child.
All children want to be loved and cared for. They can sense love and respond to it whole heartedly. But if one parent keeps saying nice things but behaves uncaringly then the child loses all sense of worth and belonging.
These kinds of parents are difficult to deal with even in the courts because they are experts in talking smoothly but their words are hollow. They donít mean what they say. And, the court has to take the case at its face value.
My advice is: donít let the situation continue and worsen. If you find yourself in a similar situation, act fast, even though it can be quite difficult.
First, explore the option of mediation or the courts. In such an extreme case the other parent should probably be denied access to the child. Of course, it will probably be more difficult to convince the courts.
What you can get, however, is some very clear agreement regarding visits: When will they happen? At what precise time? What about phone calls during the week? What happens if they other parent does not show up?
Then, having got that clarity, stick to it. Do not allow phone calls outside of the prescribed times. Do not allow the times of the visits to be changed to the other's convenience. If the agreement is for the child to be picked up between 5pm and 6pm on Friday, then wait until 6pm only. If there is another no-show, go out! Do not be available when he finally turns up at 8.30pm expecting to pick up his daughter.
Keep a record of exactly what happens and when. You will need this when you go back to court. You may also want to seek expert opinions to testify as to the effects of all of this on the child.
In the meantime, continue to be as affirming, warm, positive and supportive for the times when she is with you. Do not make excuses for the other parent's failures. But also do not go on about them either. Focus on making the times with you as secure and 'normal' as you can.
Remember, this is not a comfortable situation for both of you. If you feel none of this is working, think of moving to a different town or state, so that the problem of weekly visits is taken care of once and for all. This is the last resort and should be taken after cool consideration, lest you become the bad guy. Take some time to think of the situation. You may want to talk it over with a friend or counselor before you take such a step. Donít let your prejudice against the other parent blur your reason. It happens to people; it may be happening to you. Make sure you are not over reacting.
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Dr. Noel Swanson's website provides free expert parenting tips and advice - you will also find a free chapter to his highly acclaimed book, the GOOD CHILD Guide. You can also meet with other parents on a parenting forum. ~ai602
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