1. Your child needs to have consistent, stress-free visitations with the other parent.
You have no power to control what happens when your child spends time with the other parent. Your attitude toward these visits, however, both before your child goes and after he or she returns, can influence the emotional tone of the visits. If your former partner is thirty minutes late you can take off in the car with your child to "show him that he can't push us around," or you can wait patiently and when the other parent does show up, send your child off with a hug, accepting the explanation that your former partner was tied up in a traffic jam. (If a pattern develops in which your former partner is being truly and objectively irresponsible, deal directly with him or her-but not when your son or daughter is around.)
If you have developed the habit of trying to undermine and interfere with visitations, it is you who are creating stress for your children. You can buy tickets for a special concert on the other parent's weekend with the children, knowing it will cause problems; or you can plan such special outings only for those weekends you have your children with you. You can take your vacation at exactly the same time as your former partner, or you can work to coordinate summer vacations for the maximum benefit of your children.
Your children hear the two of you arguing on the phone. They observe you slamming the door or changing plans at the last minute. The message you send them is "I hate your dad (or your mom)." They will only be hurt by such behavior and will withdraw from being honest with you. They will begin to tell you only what you want to hear or will become openly angry at you. Neither of these reactions is very productive for them or for you.
2. You cannot force the other parent to exercise visitation rights.
In most instances, the non-custodial parent wants very much to maintain a relationship with his or her children. There are some cases, however, in which a parent deserts the family or in which a parent will not or cannot maintain contact with the children. This lack of contact may be the result of a number of factors: progressive alcoholism, guilt over the divorce, or the inability to really care for another person. The tensions and problems of the teenage years may even produce a situation (hopefully temporary) in which the non-custodial parent decides that he or she can no longer "handle" a relationship with a particular adolescent. If that has happened to your child, it may be very sad for both of you, especially since you know how important it is for your child to know and care for the other parent. In spite of your feelings there is nothing you can do to change your former spouse and you certainly cannot force him or her to see the child.
You can answer your child's questions honestly and tell him or her about the other parent. Share how you met, why you loved each other, and why you believe visitations are not occurring. This knowledge might help your child accept the perceived parental rejection, and it will also reassure them that the other parent's abuse did not come about because they were "bad" or "unlovable" or a "juvenile delinquent." No matter how deserved it may be, you should always avoid disparaging the other parent, as to do so is to disparage the child. Children are intuitively aware of the fact that they are made up of both parents, and when you insult a parent, they take it personally.
Brown & Pols, P.A.
56B Maine Street, Brunswick, Maine 04011