Friends and Parenting Time

Photo credit: VladoFriendships are an important part of life for kids, but making time for friends can become complicated when your child has divorced parents.  Striking a balance between family and friends is difficult but possible.

Welcome Friends

Let your child know that you respect his or her friendships.  Welcome friends into your home, within reason.  Children need to spend time with friends out of school and if you stand in the way, you’ll face a lot of resentment which will likely get worse as your child gets older.  Talk about friends with your child and make it clear that seeing them is something you want your child to do.  View friends as a wonderful part of your child’s life, and not as something that takes time away from you.

Set Priorities

If you and your ex alternate weekends, it can be hard to give up a whole afternoon to a play date – whether at your home or at the friend’s home.  But it is possible to have quality time with your child while allowing him play dates.  Make it a rule that play dates are fine, say, on Saturdays from noon to four, or any other day and time that is convenient for you.  Also make it clear that there must be time during the weekend for family and that while a sleepover once in a while is fine, every weekend is a bit much.

Discuss Plans with Your Ex

You and your ex should talk about how important it is to your child to see friends.  Your child may want to invite friends over for play dates or sleepovers at the non-custodial parent’s house.  Kids like to have their friends see both of their homes and parents.  Again, the non-custodial parent should set boundaries and schedule things so that there is adequate family time, but also room for friends.

Prepare for Occasions

Expect that your child will be invited to birthday parties and other events, and that these may not fit easily into your parenting plan.  You’ll need to weigh each invitation and talk to your child about them.  Most of the time, kids will want to go, but sometimes they don’t, so it’s always best to ask.  Try to make it possible for your child to attend parties he is interested in.  Your child is sure to miserable if she is the only one in the class who couldn’t go to the pool party.  You and your ex may want to have an arrangement that whichever parent is scheduled for the time of a party is the one to decide if the child is going and to provide transportation.

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Kids Who Are Unhappy About Visitation

It’s something I heard time and time again from custodial parents who were back in family court for modification of their custody orders. “My son hates going on visitation. He gets upset days in advance. Sometimes I have to force him to go. I think we need to stop visitation.” This is a very common scenario and if your child has never once complained about going on scheduled visitation, then you are in a rare minority.

 

What Kids Really Hate

Most kids don’t hate the other parent. They hate the upheaval in their lives and they express it by complaining about going on visitation. At times they make it sound like the other parent is what they don’t like. “Dad ignores me. His house is boring.” “Mom makes me go to bed early. I hate it there.” Again, what the child is reacting to is the situation. Kids who live in one home with both parents have gripes about their parents, but it doesn’t mean those parents are bad parents who don’t deserve to spend time with the kids!

 

Don’t Insert Yourself into the Situation

In most divorces, there are some bad feelings, even years later. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that it might make you feel just the tiniest bit happy if your child is mad at, annoyed at, bored with, or frustrated with the other parent. It’s just what your ex might deserve in your mind if you let yourself admit it. That doesn’t mean you can encourage, support, or even allow your child’s reaction to go on. Your child needs two parents. Neither of you are perfect and your child gets fed up with each of you, but you’re both still going to be in his life. If you haven’t accepted that, it’s time to do so.

 

Don’t Be the Bad Guy

One thing that is particularly hard when you are the custodial parent is having to shoehorn your kid out the door to go on visitation when honestly you would be perfectly happy if your child didn’t have to go (you wouldn’t have to have those arguments about vacation schedules or put up with your ex being late or trying to change things at the last minute).  It’s not fun to be the one forcing your kid to go when he tells you he doesn’t want to. The solution to this is actually quite simple. Tell your child it’s not up to you. The judge has decided this is the schedule and all of you have to follow it. There are no other options. You no longer have to be the bad guy and your child feels like there is a higher power that controls the situation.

 

How to Improve the Mood

Even if you’re able to reconcile yourself to visitation and remove yourself from the enforcer role, it still is no fun to listen to whining or complaining. Try these tips for making the transition easier:

–          When your child comes home, ask him to tell you one fun thing he did.

–          Smile when you hand off your child. Your mood is infectious. If you act like this is a great and happy occasion, it will rub off.

–          Institute a no whining rule. Tell your child there will be no complaining about going on visitation.

–          Make it clear that your child cannot cancel or postpone the planned parenting time. Often whining is an attempt to see if you’ll let the child off the hook. If changing the plans is not an option, there will be fewer complaints.

–          If your child has complaints about what happens at the other parents’ house, tell her that that is something to discuss with the other parent, not with you.

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How to Create a Parenting Plan

Photo Credit: nuttakit

Once you have a basic custody agreement decided (or ordered by a court), you still have a lot of work to do in order to create a workable parenting schedule. If you have a court order that specifies alternate weekend and one night per week visitation with the non-custodial parent, you might think there’s nothing for you to do. Setting up a parenting schedule is actually rather complicated and requires you and your ex to sit down together (if possible) and hammer out the details. If you don’t have a court order and want to work this out on your own, then you also need to find time to sit down and work through it.

Map It Out

You each need to bring your own calendar to the meeting, as well as have a calendar showing all of your child’s sports events, school events, and extracurricular activities. You should place a large blank month by month calendar on the table in between you. Using pencil, start by plotting in all the visitation for the next month. Then compare these dates to your own calendars and your child’s calendar. Look for conflicts. For example, if you need to go out of town on business on a weekend you would normally have, it would make sense to swap weekends so your ex has your child at that time. If pick and drop off from visitation falls in the middle of a soccer game, dance practice or birthday party your child goes to, you need to adjust the times.

Moving Forward

Once you’ve worked through one month, try plotting out the next two. Work through that, then set up a tentative schedule for the rest of the year. Keep in mind this has to be tentative and subject to change. It’s really hard to know what is going to be happening in December when you are scheduling in March. Plan to be flexible and make adjustments as you go.

Holiday Schedule

Next work on the holiday schedule. If you have a court order, it might spell out who has which holiday, but you’ll still need to make some adjustments. For example, if your ex has Thanksgiving this year but the Saturday and Sunday after it would normally be his weekend, it might make sense to switch out that weekend, so you will have some time with your child on that holiday weekend. If your ex has Christmas Eve, but that falls on a weekend that would be yours, you’ll need to remember that holidays trump regularly scheduled weekends.

Make Changes Together.

Try to be flexible with each other. Remember that you can make any changes to the visitation plan that you both agree on – and in fact courts want you to do this rather than filling up the docket with trivial things like this. If you can work it out on your own, you absolutely should do so. If you’re worried about your ex pulling a fast one, you can enter a stipulation into court to get the change made official.

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Divorce and the Media

If you have children ages eight and up, they probably see a lot about divorce on TV and they’ve probably heard about the latest break ups. Every time a big celebrity couple (Sandra Bullock and Jesse James, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, etc.) hits the rocks, you can’t avoid it on TV. Frankly, most of what your kids see on TV about divorce is not good. TV shows, movies, and news reports frequently focus on the dark side of divorce –after all there isn’t much of a story when two people part in a reasonable way and make adult decisions together about their family and their assets. The news coverage always seeks out the dirtiest secrets (who cheated on who and what nasty things they have to say about each other after the fact).

Protect Your Children from Divorce in the Media
The best thing you can do is insulate your children from the gleeful media reports about this marriage or that falling apart, or this couple or that couple fighting to death over money or custody. Turn the channel. It’s harder to control what your tweens and teens watch of course. Instead of changing the channel, just be aware of what they are watching so that you can address it.

Encourage Appropriate Shows
Not all portrayals of divorce on TV are bad. In fact, there are a lot of shows that do a very good job of treating things fairly. 7th Heaven, although in rerun land now, is one show that often was able to deal with this topic in a fair and reasonable way. Drake and Josh is a show about two stepbrothers whose parents each got divorced. It can help kids to watch shows that have storylines about other kids who are going through the same things they are. Kate Plus Eight shows a family moving on after divorce. Shows like Divorce Court or other programs that show couples fighting do not help your child cope with your divorce.

Talk about It
If your child sees media reports or reads online about a celebrity divorce or custody case, don’t ignore it. Bring the subject up. First, ask your child what he thinks about. Find out if it has made him worried about anything and address his fears. Remind him that what you see on TV isn’t always true, and only the people involved in the situation really know what is happening. Tell him that sometimes TV exaggerates things that are happening to make them seem more exciting and interesting.

Even when he watches a show that treats divorce in a reasonable way, engage him in conversation about what happened and why it happened that way. Be prepared to admit when things on TV have gone better than things in your own life! You’re not perfect and neither is your ex.

Reality Check
Point out to your child that what happened or is happening in your family is completely different from the cases or shows he sees on TV. If your divorce is in progress, reiterate what the plan is and what is going to happen with living arrangements, custody, and so on. When the Alec Baldwin situation (where he left his daughter a voicemail calling her a pig because he couldn’t reach her due in part to the custody dispute) hit the news, it made a lot of kids feel especially uncomfortable, wondering if their parents thought that way about them. Reassure your child that both parents love him and want what is best for him.

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Balancing Parenting Styles

photo credit: renjith krishan

Jan prides herself on being a good mother. She is a highly motivated person who believes in punctuality and clear rules. She loves her children more than anything, but has some firm rules for the kids when it comes to chores, homework, curfews, and TV/computer time. She also makes lots of time to do things with the kids and is always looking for what she thinks of as teachable moments – opportunities to talk about big issues and lay down a good moral foundation for her kids. Her ex-husband Peter couldn’t be more different. When they were married, they fought a lot about what he called her uptightness and she called his lazy attitude. As you can imagine, Peter parents differently than Jan. He isn’t as worried about how much TV/computer time the kids have and lets them watch TV before their homework is done. He doesn’t expect them to do any chores at his house and in fact doesn’t do too many himself. Because Jan is so rigid about bedtimes and curfews, he often returns the kids late just to tick her off and sometimes lets them stay up late on the weekends. He even allowed their twelve-year-old daughter to stay out until 11 p.m., which Jan thought was ridiculous. Sometimes Peter doesn’t make dinner for the kids and says everyone has to find something in the fridge that they want. Jan and Peter continue to fight even after the divorce because Jan feels that the way he parents is outrageous, lax, and simply wrong. No matter how many times she patiently explains how important it is to have a routine, set bedtimes, and consistent rules at both homes, Peter simply won’t do things her way.

Jan and Peter might seem a bit exaggerated (but believe me, they really aren’t – I’ve seen cases with greater extremes), but I’m offering their story to make a point. It’s quite common for basic differences in parenting styles to become yawning gaps after a divorce. Each parent has a tendency to go further to an extreme after a divorce, as if to cement that his or her way is correct.

The end result of this is more conflict, anger, and resentment. Both spouses are learning to parent alone and it’s likely they’re both going to make mistakes. In fact, they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. You might have noticed that separation and divorce rock you to the core and that also applies to your parenting. It’s often a time when people take a stand just to have something they can hold on to and this can result in a real clash between parents because they’ve lost the ability (and sometimes the desire) to work together.

The best way to handle a situation like Jan and Peter’s is to remember that no matter how certain you are that your way is the right way, there is no perfect approach to parenting. In fact, your kids will probably benefit from having parents with two different approaches because they will learn to be adaptable. Of course, there are some situations where this isn’t good – children with severe learning disabilities, for example, cannot adapt well and do need consistency. If one parent is lax to the point of endangering the children, that obviously is a bad situation. But in most other situations, the best thing to do is accept that you’re both different and that your children need both of you, with all your quirks.

Tips for Coping When You Have Different Parenting Styles
1. Reassure yourself that your kids are getting the basics: they are healthy, clean, fed, rested, loved and doing ok in school. If there is a real problem that endangers this, talk to the other parent, otherwise decide you have to let go.
2. Create a separation in your mind. What happens at the other parent’s house is outside of your control. Stop trying to monitor, evaluate, judge, and affect what’s happening there. Put up a mental wall that you will not climb over.
3. Get on with things when the kids aren’t with you. Don’t let yourself be consumed by worry and what ifs. Assume they are happy and adequately cared for and put it out of your mind.

4. Don’t question your kids about what happened at the other parent’s house. Listen to them if they share details, but don’t quiz them and try to elicit details about exactly what happened when. Encourage them to resolve problems with the other parent themselves when possible.
5. Realize you cannot change how your ex parents. He/she doesn’t want and won’t take your advice, tips, suggestions, or directives. You’re not in charge of what happens there, just as your ex is not in charge of what happens at your house.
6. Realize that having two parents who are different is actually a good thing for your child.

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