How parents handle issues of visitation and custody exchanges can be one of the most important aspects of post-divorce parenting. On one hand, maintaining a strong connection with both parents is crucial to a child’s long-term welfare. Children who lose connection with a parent will forever be haunted by this lost relationship and sense of abandonment. On the other hand, this noble cause is far-too-frequently perverted by rigid schedules and court-appointed visitation routines which drag a child like a rag doll from one home to another without ever taking the youngster’s wishes into consideration. Poorly handled visitation routines can be extremely stressful for kids, thus trapping children in the type of chronic stress environment that is detrimental to their wellbeing. Such situations also make children resentful of one or both parents, which will also leave indelible scars. The only beneficial option left is for both parents to do a good job balancing parental time with the child’s needs for autonomy and a respect for their wishes.
A child’s perspective on court-ordered visitation
“The American legal system is under the impression that its activities and decisions are geared toward safeguarding children after divorce. But I have rarely met a child who felt protected by this system. On the contrary, most children would be very surprised to hear that any judge, attorney, mediator, or anyone else had their interests at heart when setting up court-ordered visiting. Many do not feel protected by their own parents in the planning of visiting or custody. Instead, they feel silenced. The visiting schedule, which the children deem arbitrary and oppressive, is made without their interests and wishes in mind.
…Sadly for all the children in this study, court-ordered visiting failed in its very important purpose of bringing father and children together in a renewed loving relationship. The goal was laudable. But the abruptness of the visits and a schedule that was never shaped to fit their needs sabotaged this ideal. …Handled rigidly and without help for parents and children, this kind of visiting is a lost opportunity for all. In good intact families, children are not ordered to spend major blocks of time with one parent or another on a rigid schedule about which they have no say. Why treat children of divorce with less consideration?” – Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 180, 181)
Before we get into ways that you can make visitation work, parents should take a moment to put themselves in their child’s shoes. Whether it’s joint-custody transitions or visitation arrangements, children tend to express many of the same frustrations about the visitation process:
- Children feel bullied by the courts or the parent with the court-ordered visitation. They often describe themselves as slaves, and feel as though they have no control over their own lives.
- Parents are often reluctant to give up “their time” with the kids, and expectedly so. But they also don’t seem willing to make any adjustments to accommodate for the child’s needs. Children feel as though the burden and sacrifice only falls one way, and that parents do not make any sacrifices on their end.
- They feel rushed and as though their life is always in transition. As one judge commented, normal custody arrangements “treat children like Frisbees” to be bounced back and forth.
- They complain of being bored or feeling out of place at one parent’s house. They wonder, what will I do there? Where is he going to take us? How will I pass the time? If specific efforts aren’t made to help the children thrive, it can exact a severe toll. One female child of divorce states that, “I remember forever those dreary weekends and those lonely Julys without my friends when I cried my eyes out.” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 180)
- They talk about abrupt, stressful, even terrifying transitions from one parent to the next. One woman, who as a child was forced to shuttle back and forth by herself on a plane between Denver and San Francisco starting at the age of six, says “I felt like a piece of garbage being put on the plane. I said to my mother, ‘How can you do this to me?’ I remember her telling me, ‘This is what the experts think is good for you.’”(ibid, p.x)
- They describe themselves as feeling like “leftovers.” They may go to a parent’s house and encounter step-parents or step-siblings that look upon them as a burden. They feel as though they don’t belong.
- One of the most universal complaints is that this type of divided living arrangement makes it difficult to do the same type of things their friends do, such as play together on the weekends, have sleepovers, or consistently attend sports practices and games. When play invitations and friends’ birthday parties fall on a visitation weekend, they are unable to go. Different issues come up, but they are constrained by the custody schedule. They often feel as though they are missing out. This makes them feel like “second class citizens.”
- When they do speak up about these issues, they often feel as though their complaints are brushed off or ignored. Mothers enjoy the childless weekends, and so they’re quick to dismiss the child’s suffering, even when their kid has legitimate complaints about the process. In fact, it’s often when the other parent is borderline involved (and thus not real responsive to the child’s needs) that the custodial parent is most likely to tell a child to “suck it up” and otherwise be generally unhelpful.
Not every child has these problems or feels the same things. But a significant number of them do. Unfortunately, some of these are structural problems created by a divided family, and therefore can’t be solved. Yet there is a lot that concerned parents can do to make the situation more manageable. The following guidelines are designed to help you do just that.
More resources on child visitation
DES Child visitation information: Learn what’s wrong with child visitation schedules & how to make parent-child visitation work to improve parenting time.