Dealing with the Other Difficult Parent

Q. My stepdaughter is 4, and her real mother is constantly in and out of jail and has 86 felonies. She gets visitation every other weekend, (If she shows up). Every time our daughter comes back from her visitation she is a completely different child. When she gets home she just sits there for hours on end and won’t say anything.

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 – 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.

There are basically two different situations. One is when one of the parents is causing the problem; and the other is just the differences between parents and homes. In this article I am going to focus on the former – the problem parent.

This kind of parent is, among other things, unreliable. He promises to call or come, but doesn’t show up. This hurts the child deeply because he/she goes through a whole spectrum of feelings, from hope and excitement to disappointment and despair and even guilt.

Often the parent does come and take the child but either ignores the child completely or imposes his/her will on the child. This hurts the child as it gives the impression that he/she is not a priority in the mind of the parent.

I have known of occasions when not only the child but even the mother has to accommodate last-minute changes in the other parent’s plans.

Some parents are so caught up in their emotions that they, intentionally or inadvertently, start using the child as a messenger for conveying unpleasant remarks about each other. This is damaging for the child. It gives him wrong ideas and he may develop an attitude to play one parent against the other for personal gains.

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.

The saddest part is that such slippery parents often win legal battles because they are manipulative. And, the courts have no way of finding the truth for lack of factual evidence to support the complaint of the other parent.

If you find yourself in this situation, you need to take some strong and decisive action. But it won’t be easy.

Start by seeking mediation or legal advice. Deny access to the other parent till the situation becomes clear. This is not to say that getting the courts to agree to this will be easy.

If that option is not likely, then get a clear agreement regarding visits, including the date, time and duration etc. But, the problem is of the other parent not showing up despite the promises.

Once you know the broad framework of the weekly schedule, stick to it. Be firm and refuse any deviations from the agreed terms. Do not let the other parent change the times of the visits. If the other parent has agreed to pick up the child at a particular time, then wait only till then and follow your own plans thereon. There is no need to be available whenever he turns up at his convenience.

It is advisable to maintain a record of such deviations and the harmful effect they have on the child; you will need them in the court.

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.

As an ultimate step you might have to think of moving out of the town or state to make the visits more impractical. But, before you decide to take such a drastic step, make sure your opinion about the other parent is not based on prejudices against him. Think objectively, or talk it over with a friend or counselor before moving out.