Visitation Part II
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have
worked with children of all ages for over twenty years.
Usually parents drag their kids into my office complaining
of a litany of bad behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up
their rooms, to getting bad grades, hitting their siblings,
or worse, stealing, fighting or doing drugs. I work with
parents to change their children's behavior. It is very
helpful for the parents to know their children's experiences,
especially after a divorce. This, the previous article
address what the child thinks about the divorce and how
they react, considering some fundamental needs. This series
of articles focuses on visitation between separated parents.
There are some difficult "dynamics" that occur in
association with coming and going. Pre-visit jitters is my
term for what the child experiences just as he or she is about
to leave one parent to visit the other. There is the mourning
or "loss of leaving" feeling for what has become comfortable.
The child is familiar with the routines of the house he or she
is about to leave and does not want to leave. Why would the
child want to change this and go to some "other" house where the
routines are going to be different, even if known? The child
becomes anxious, which is why behaviors become more difficult to
control (acting out vs. verbalizing feelings). This is
especially true when the child is younger (under six). Usually
the child experiences anxiety, which in younger children is
usually acted out. Signs of this are increased motor behavior
in all areas, culminating in doing one or more things that "test"
parents. The child is trying to control his or her own
experience. Testing is often secondary to the real aim of the
behavior, which is to discharge uncomfortable impulses. The
parent has to "clamp down" just a little more to get the child to
"get ready" to "visit" (the other parent). Such negativity at the
very end of the visit with the first parent often spoils the visit,
and can set up negativity for the second or receiving parent.
The child finally is "ready" and exits the first parent's house,
usually driving to the other parent's place. In hostile divorce
cases, the drop-off point is often a neutral place. This limits
parent's contact. In my geographic region, this is the McDonald's
parking lot. Often the receiving parent uses this opportunity to
feed the child while letting him or her run off this "extra energy."
Fortunately, McDonalds restaurants usually have playgrounds.
(Think this is an accident?) The first parent exits as the child
now expresses the transition tensions to the receiving parent.
This is unfortunate because it is not necessarily the fault of the
receiving parent that the child feels anxious. However, often the
receiving parent experiences the brunt of the child's negative, or
acting out behavior(s). As I like to say, "The planet closest to
the sun takes the most heat."
Sooner or later, the child will calm down and the receiving
parent will taxi the child to the "other" home for some pre-arranged
period. The child will feel some anxiety leaving the now past
environment and re-entering the now current environment, even though
the receiving parent is familiar to the child, and even though after
many such exchanges, the routine and changes also will be more
familiar. Again, the younger the child, the more primary the
emotional reaction might be. Older children might be more subdued,
emotionally, but might also present more challenges through
manipulation or downright refusal to cooperate.
As many parents have noted, this dynamic of regularly changing
houses can be very difficult for teenagers. Teenagers have friends
and like to "hang out," usually more often with them than with parents.
This becomes very evident at age 13 and is completely normal.
Changing venues can be disruptive to social activities, so teen
resistance to going to the other parent's house can be formidable.
Because teenagers can act out in more ways than toddlers or slightly
older children, their resistance can take the form of
sometimes-aggressive behavior. Here are some specific things to try
to ease the tensions.