Revisiting parental visitation

How to make parental visitations work for split families

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Last weekend it was a movie excursion with friends. This weekend there’s a sleepover. For the second time in a row, your daughter is asking to cancel her regularly scheduled visitation at her Dad’s house. “It’s not that I don’t love Dad,” she says. “But I want to hang out with my friends.”

“A traditional visitation schedule is really quite unnatural at this stage,” says Barrie, Ont., psychologist and author Peter Marshall, “because developmentally they’re supposed to be working toward independence.” That means friends and social activities are becoming more important; most preteens, regardless of family situation, don’t want to spend all weekend with a parent.

When a child is unhappy about scheduled visits because they take him away from activities and friends, parents should be willing to discuss it, says Marshall. Ideally, that should happen among all three parties.

“I think if parents can, they should be flexible,” says Marshall. “Even court-ordered visits can be changed if everyone agrees. If seeing the same parent every weekend means your son is missing out on birthday parties and movie nights with his friends, maybe you can try every third weekend and a mid-week evening together.” At the same time, says Marshall, “it’s perfectly legitimate for parents to want to spend time with their children, and that needs to be respected.”

Ask children for their input: “It’s important that you spend time with your dad. How can we make that work and still make sure there’s an opportunity for you to spend time with your friends?”

Parents should be very clear, however, that the final decision about visitation schedules rests with them, says Dundas, Ont., social worker Gary Direnfeld. “We can’t always accommodate our children — and sometimes, just as in an intact family, it’s not even a good idea to try. Sometimes we have to deal with some frustration in our children whether we’re separated or not.”

If a child isn’t happy about visits because of rules or limits in one household, the challenge for separated parents will be to work together — to present a united front and respect one another’s situation, says Direnfeld. That doesn’t necessarily mean enforcing the same rules in both homes, but it does mean resisting a child’s attempts to recruit one parent as an ally against the other. It may also mean maintaining appropriate boundaries when it comes to issues — when homework gets done or whether sleepovers are allowed, for example — in the other household. In these instances, it’s best for mom to say, “You need to discuss with your dad, not me.” That’s assuming, of course, that there are no health or safety concerns, adds Direnfeld.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the need isn’t for a set schedule, but to maintain the relationships. That’s the goal,” says Marshall. “You want your child to look back and say, ‘I had a good relationship with both my parents even though they were separated.’”

New Partner?

Sometimes kids balk at a visitation because they’re uncomfortable with a new partner. “The biggest mistake that parents make is to move too quickly in introducing the new person,” says Marshall. “Don’t expect a child to feel as you do about the new person in your life. It’s quite often very hard for kids to accept someone new.”

Kids need time to develop a relationship of their own with the new partner, without feeling pressured to do so. Short outings, rather than overnights and weekends together, are the place to start.

“Kids shouldn’t have to accept a new partner as part of their visit with their parent right away,” says Marshall. “The best thing a new partner can say is ‘You go and have fun with your dad today. I’ll see you later.’”