I have many clients that are in custody battles. These are the people who seek my help. They all have the same problem. Although they would like for their child to have a healthy relationship with their ex, they first and foremost want their child to be physically and psychologically safe.
The ex often has a history of behaviour both during marriage and post separation that is not child-centred. This behaviour may have resulted in a discontinuation of visitation for a period of time. After the hiatus you begin to receive correspondence that your ex wants to see their child and that you are preventing this. The honeymoon is over.
Suddenly you are forced to facilitate access or you face a motion in court. There is a complete denial of any wrong doing by your ex. All issues have been “fabricated by you in an attempt to alienate the child” from your ex. Perhaps you take the chance and go to court where visitation is ordered. In Ontario, unless your ex is an ax murderer, there is a pretty good chance that he or she will be ordered some access.
My big loss in court
Unfortunately, my lawyer did not warn me of this. I went to court to defend a motion for access with the stance that my 13 year old son should be able to determine his own access. He had taken a hiatus from his dad after some pretty aberrant and dangerous behaviour. If you want the specifics check out this blog post.
Since you know how things will likely roll in court, you need to use every ounce of grey matter to keep your child happy and safe while facilitating a relationship with the other parent. This is where coaching and managing your thoughts really comes in to play.
Your child’s perspective
Your child is going to have a lot of thoughts and feelings about resuming visitation. They may have thoughts about divided loyalties. Despite some bad behaviour they often still want a connection with both parents. They may internalize then mirror your worry. They remember scary or painful events during the marriage. These thoughts and feelings may cause your child to behave in a way that demonstrates that he or she is unsettled. This is really hard for us and I feel your pain.
Try to get to the root cause of your child’s distress. Ask questions to help you understand exactly what is bothering them and how you can make it better.
Explain that not going to see your ex is not an option. Reiterate the importance that even though things have changed, the other parent is a part of our life and we need to work at it.
Some practical tips
Your goal is to make the transition as comfortable as possible. Ask yourself:
- How I can make this the best it can be?
- Would shorter more frequent visits be easier on my child?
- Is the timing of the visit going to optimize the experience?
Be solution focused. Work on solutions with your child. Here are some examples:
- Create a handover notebook – Send with your child with any instructions or pertinent details. The access parent can write details of the visit – potty incidents, food eaten, activities. This way your child does not need to be the reporter of events. The book should be transparent and available for the child to read.
- Nightly phone calls – Many younger kids resist this and don’t want to speak by phone. If your child has nothing to say, make sticky notes of things that come up during the week they can tell the other parent about. Set up a video game to play interactively together for 15 minutes every other night.
- Complaints of boredom – Have your child travel with their favourite game, toy or a special craft for the visit.
- Safety issues – as soon as your child is old enough to manage a cell phone, invest in one and put on a GPS application like Find Friends. Teach your child a safe word to text if they feel they are in danger such as being coerced to go into the car with a parent who has consumed alcohol. I had 2 safe words for my son – one that was a “red alert” (call the police now) and one that was a “yellow alert” to indicate that he just was not very happy and I should phone him. You can use the words RED and YELLOW to keep it simple.
Rome was not built in a day. Evaluate and tweak every week to make it better.
Clean up your own thoughts
The more that you think that this is unfair, awful, or insane, the more you will show up in that space for your child. You need to think thoughts that make you feel confident in your child’s ability to manage this. That is what will make you behave in a way that empowers your child. If you work on believing that your child is going to rock this…your child will.
If you cannot believe that this is ok, at least work on believing that this is your child’s unique path. This is exactly the perfect curriculum for you and your child right now. You may not understand it, but this is what is.
Try to look at this as an amazing opportunity to work on your mind. Even though you cannot change the circumstance, you and your child can change how you think about it, which will change how you feel about it and how you show up for it.