Question: My ex and I broke up last year about this time. We’re riding the wave, but the biggest problem is that my son, age 8, cries and gets very clingy when he is supposed to go to his dad’s. My ex always let me take care of things. Now that I’m not around him I’m worried he’s not handling things correctly and my son misses me. I don’t want to make my son do something he doesn’t want to do. What’s good ex-etiquette?
Answer: Your observation is the most common complaint I hear from divorced parents. Either mom or dad tells me that their child balks when it’s time to see the other parent and they are certain something is going on at the other home that causes their child to respond that way. Although there may be a legitimate reason that your son does not want to visit dad (which must always be explored), my experience is that this is rare. Unfortunately, sometimes the child is too young to tell you why he or she is feeling a particular way, and since both parents are convinced they know their child best, they point fingers at each other rather than consider that they, too, may be contributing to the problem. Do your best to not jump to conclusions. The most common reasons that I see a child may respond this way are:
The child loves both parents and legitimately does not want to leave either parent once he or she is with them. The transition is very tough and the child gets emotional when it’s time to leave one parent and go to the other’s home. It would not be uncommon for the other parent to then report that he or she sees the same behavior in the child when it is time for the child to return.
The child could be responding to his parent’s anxiety about him leaving. If Mommy cries or Dad becomes short tempered, a child may respond by crying at the time of transition. Parents must be careful that they are not setting the pace with tearful goodbyes and undermining a child’s security when he is with their other parent. If a child thinks that Mommy or Daddy is lonely or hurting, he or she will want to stay and take care of their parent. It does not mean, however, that they don’t want to see the other parent.
Children want to please their parents. They may think it makes mommy or daddy happy if they act like it’s difficult to leave.
Believe it or not, the answer to all this is to improve your communication with the other parent. When a child can see that their parents are cordial — not cuddly — they relax. They don’t think they’re doing something wrong when they enjoy themselves at either parent’s home. You can tell if you’re doing things right if your child freely talks about their experiences and openly looks forward to seeing the other parent. Crying is an important indicator that something is wrong, but as parents we know children cry. If the other parent reports that the crying continues and the child cannot get settled, then there may be something to explore. But, if the child stops the crying may be more of an indicator of the child’s frustration with the transition, and that’s when both parents have to make a special effort to work together to make the transition as easy as possible. A child needs BOTH parents.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.