My six-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son visit their father (we have been separated for eight months and are going to be divorced soon), who lives 40km away, twice a month, from Friday morning to Sunday night. This arrangement has been going on for four months. I believe their father takes good care of them but either both or one of the children is in a silent, foul mood or very cranky when they leave my place or when they return. Sometimes they are sullen towards me or towards their father at the end of the visit. Basically no weekend starts or ends well. I am very sure there is no neglect or abuse at that end. What is going on?
While your arrangement sounds civil and workable in the long term, it is still very new for your children. They may have accepted it logistically, but they are struggling with it emotionally. Not all the time, but perhaps more acutely during the “handover”, when they leave you and go there or when they leave him to return to you. Children in this situation, particularly such little ones, grapple with the hope or fantasy, “why can’t we all be together?” They may have said it, and you may have explained that it cannot be, but their hearts and psyches still yearn for it. And the time when they leave one parent and go to the other is possibly when they feel it most acutely.
When they are fully with you or with their father, this sadness may be receding and the activities with, and warmth of, one parent are enough to keep them busy and stable. However, when they have to leave and re-enter their home with the other parent, the fact that you are not a family unit under the same roof any more must be hitting them hard. They cannot or will not articulate any of this disorientation and sadness to either parent, so it comes out in the form of angry silence or crankiness.
Do ask them if they want to take a break from going to their dad’s—but I am guessing that this is not what they would want either.
It is really about them having a hard time accepting the new reality, and there is not a whole lot you can do about it, except give it time. However, having said that, you could encourage them to talk about it, or refer to it yourself once in a while, gently letting them know that you are aware that they don’t like it when it is time to leave either parent, before or after their trip to their father. Some parents in your situation even go out together once in a while as a family. Do this if you feel you can, but perhaps it is still too early in your separation to do this. Meanwhile, don’t avoid replying to questions about why you cannot be together with their father, and be prepared to give them age-appropriate explanations over the next few years.
My daughter is 15 and often has the use of a car and driver. So she is often going out of her way, using up precious studying time, to drop friends off or pick them up. When I tell her not to ferry her friends around, she says I am being petty. But I can see that she is being taken advantage of, and that too with no reciprocal gestures from her friends or their parents. How can one teach youngsters not to get taken for granted by friends?
On this issue, some parents have come to the conclusion that whatever you say, your child will see you as being just petty and mean, so you have to just let it go and let her do things for people. One day, hopefully, they say, she will learn to be more discerning and give help and favours more judiciously and less indiscriminately! These are the lessons of life that youngsters can only learn on their own. Going on about it as a parent just makes the young person resentful and rebellious.
Children are not into mathematical reciprocity, and your daughter, who is going out of her way for a friend, is getting something intangible out of it. Of course, it’s your car and driver, and if you really feel they are being misused, lay down boundaries in terms of the sheer mileage that she racks up ferrying her friends! After all, 15 is old enough to think of weighing and balancing being helpful with the cost to self in terms of time (and parents’ resources too). But totally avoid the “can’t you see they’re taking you for a ride” kind of approach to the subject.
You could also try to lead your daughter into a conversation about reciprocity, about the give and take of good friendships, and about not only learning to do favours but also asking confidently for favours in return. Not as a “transaction”, but as part of a well-rounded friendship.
However, if we get the feeling that our children are being helpful mainly because they don’t know how to say no, or because they feel this is the only way they will be liked, then it is something that needs careful understanding.
This could mean that the child has a poor self-image, is under-confident about her “likeability” and is unable to set healthy boundaries (in saying no as well as judging whether she really needs to go so far out of her way). It could also mean that she needs better friends, but this is something you can’t directly deal with. Confidence and love of self are things you would need to work on at a subtle and consistent level, perhaps with the help of a counsellor or trusted family friend, relative, or favourite teacher.
Gouri Dange is the author of ABCs of Parenting.
Write to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org