Smart Parenting During and After Divorce: Visitation Tantrums
Children throw temper tantrums over visitation for a number of reasons, so it is unwise to assume that the "real reason" is because he is not well taken care of at the other parent's home.
Reasons Children Don't Want to Visit
Some of the reasons children give for not wanting to visit with the other parent include the following:
- "It's boring."
- "I don't like the other people there."
- "I am afraid to sleep over."
- "I am left with a babysitter while Mom [Dad] goes out."
- "I don't like the food."
- "I get hit when I am there."
- "Dad [Mom] likes [somebody else] more than they like me."
There may be other reasons, but these statements cover most of them. When a child's protests are exaggerated and seemingly just whining, the issue usually boils down to these reasons:
- I don't want to leave my main house, which is comfortable and has all my stuff in it.
- I am not getting enough attention, and I don't like sharing attention.
When the protests are not exaggerated there may be a true cause for concern because the child may be saying she is being neglected, ignored, or abused.
Children rarely refuse visitation when they are given lots of prompting and advance preparation. Prepare the children well in advance by speaking positively about it.
Attending to Your Child's Concerns
To properly attend to your child's concerns, speak with her in a neutral way, and try not to make any assumptions. Ask your child to tell you what a typical visit is like. If your child complains of being hit or spanked, ask him to tell you a story from the beginning of what was happening before the spanking to what happened after the spanking. Be aware that children will often exaggerate the negatives of what happens when with the visiting parent, especially if negatives are what seem to get the most attention from you. (A parent's getting excited and hysterical can be very rewarding for children because it teaches them how important they are when they are giving bad news about the other parent.)
When you see cranky behavior before visitation, do your best for the first few visits to encourage visitation. One of the worst ways to encourage a child to go to visitation is to give the child a rest or break from visiting. When this happens, the child often knows she is disappointing the other parent, and she feels even more nervous and guilty the next time it is time to visit. As a result, she might protest even more. The parent the child is with more often can make the situation worse by starting arguments with the co-parent and making the child feel bad about not visiting.
Talk to Your Co-Parent
Before you even think about cutting off visitation, do your best to have a conversation with the co-parent. Begin your conversation with the following: "I have been having a rough time getting Judy to go to visitation. Can you tell me how she is in the car and once she gets there?" This will make the co-parent less defensive because it implies that you are willing to accept that once the child leaves the house she is fine. Don't expect any gentle prodding to be taken well by a co-parent who has a hostile relationship with you. This type of problem solving is simply impossible when parents do not have a good relationship—just one more reason why it is so important to try to maintain a good relationship.
Get Professional Help
If the child starts to regularly complain, it is time to enlist the aid of a counselor who is familiar with this problem. Invite the co-parent to participate from the first session so that the co-parent does not feel as though the counselor is simply your ally. A good counselor should be able to get to the bottom of the child's complaints.
When parents have a good relationship with one another, they can sit down with the child together and ask what would make visitation happier. Often, children do not know, so if this approach does not yield something practical, do not push it. Frequently, children do not want to be interrupted playing, or they do not value time with the other parent. This occurs when parents divorce when children are very young and children do not have a good model of the give-and-take that is required in relationships.
At some point, children will refuse visitation because there is not enough in it for them. They reject visitation because they are not properly entertained. This can be the case where one parent has the means to take them to the movies, shopping, and out to eat on a regular basis, and the other parent does not. When this is the case, parents need to work on teaching the child that a person's company is just as important as the amount of rides they will take you on. By the same token, visiting parents must stimulate their children. Your six-year-old might become very bored sitting next to you on the couch while you watch football games on Sunday.
Also, children will tune into your moods and react accordingly. If you are sad, lonely, or depressed, and this is what your child sees during visitation, eventually he might not want to be in your company. If this is the case, it is time to seek some counseling for yourself.
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