Q: I have recently gotten divorced. My daughter is three and initially enjoyed her time with her father, but since staying overnight she refuses to go. Each time he comes to pick her up it is a giant scene. I try to convince her and remind her what a good time she had before, but she won’t budge. What should I do?
Note to readers: This response relates specifically to the questioner, who is a mother and primary caretaker. Though the terms “mother” and “father” are used here, other terms may be appropriate in individual families that may have different custody and caretaking arrangements.
A: It is the parent’s job to see to it that the child feels at ease during time together. My guess is that staying overnight must have scared your daughter, and/or there may be other issues that she does not feel comfortable with.
Any time we try to convince a child to ignore her inner voice and follow our ideas, we teach her to become dependent and insecure. In essence, we tell her, “Ignore how you feel inside, and do what someone else tells you.” Unfortunately, she may actually learn this undesirable lesson. She is learning to fall for future peer pressure, media sales, and social pressure and to become more dependent on what others say in general. This is the nature of insecurity, a learned habit of undermining one’s own inner guide and following others.
As a result of your healthy attachment practices, your daughter shows self-confidence; she listens to herself and asserts her will. You want her self-reliance to stay alive and strong as it is. Independence is the result of trusting oneself. The child learns to trust herself when we respect her and when she experiences that life resonates with her inner voice.
Therefore, the first step is to find what your daughter is trying to avoid by not going with her father. The child is always right, by which I mean she always has a valid reason for every choice and behavior. Instead of talking her out of her self-reliance, we want to find out her valid concern and take it seriously.
The following are some possible reasons why a child refuses to go with her father:
• She does not want to stay overnight without Mommy.
• Daddy isn’t meeting her needs the way she is used to.
• She doesn’t like the food he gives her.
• He takes her to his girlfriend, and she doesn’t like her.
• Daddy works at the computer and doesn’t pay attention to her.
• He talks critically of Mommy.
• She doesn’t like going to Grandma with him for a list of reasons.
• She is bored part of the time.
• The visit is too long for her; she misses Mommy.
• She worries about bathroom needs because at home he was not the one to help her.
• He tickles her or overpowers her in physical play (with the best of intentions).
• He insists on her taking a shower.
• Combing her hair is not his best skill and it hurts her.
• Dad’s neighbor has a dog that scares her.
• She feels shame for doing things at Daddy’s that Mommy doesn’t want her to do.
And so on.
These are normal human issues that are often missed. Most problems can be alleviated by simply listening to the child. Our goal is not to get the child to go against her own will, but to provide a visit that she will want to go on of her own free will.
Father can make it better with your support
We are not talking here about a father who is not safe or not good for the child. That would be a completely different conversation. From your question, it is clear that your former husband is a loving and nurturing father and that you support your child’s relationship with him. Once you understand that your child has valid reasons for her refusal to go, you will have the vital information that can help her father make a better connection. You can say to your ex-husband, “I want you two to have a close and wonderful time together. I wonder what we can do so she would be excited and comfortable on her visits with you?” Share what you have discovered to be the cause of the problem without instructing or making your child’s father wrong.
To avoid implying that your former partner is doing something wrong, avoid talking about him, and talk only about the needs of the child. Instead of, “I think you are scaring her …,” or “You shouldn’t tickle her …,” you can say, “I know you play so wonderfully with her, and she loves you so much. And she told me that she is frightened when you play hide-and-seek and she cannot find you fast enough.” Or you can say, “She loves cuddling and being carried on your shoulders. And she said she doesn’t like being tickled.” Give information about the child, but do not follow it with a suggestion about what he should do. Leave that to him.
Possibly he will say nothing, or even oppose you and defend his position. Try to stay connected and loving, saying something like, “I hear you, and I am sure you will find the best solution and have a great time together.” It is best not to defend your position. He will then be left with your support and connection and has a better chance of making the most caring changes.
It is developmentally normal for children of this age to be afraid of sleeping away from the primary caregiver, and it will likely change over time if the child’s needs for security are met. My guess about your daughter is that she is not ready to sleep without you. If that is the case, then you can let her father know, “She told me that she is afraid of sleeping in your house. Would you like to see her an additional afternoon instead of the overnight?” Be a helpful partner who is trying to find the best way to make the visits so enjoyable and delightful that the child will be looking forward to them. A parent who cooperates with the child’s needs will have a child who wants to be with him or her.
Coordinating life’s flow between the two parents
A child can handle divorce and visitations with much more ease when there is continuity between the two parents. Some children refuse to go visit their father because once there, they are offered things Mommy does not approve of. They may partly enjoy the breaking of Mommy’s rules and the “treats,” but at the same time feel confused and guilty. Deep inside, a child would rather give up the candy, toy or movie than come back home to her mother feeling ashamed and guilty, having something to hide. The harm to the relationship far outweighs the pleasure of the forbidden fruit.
Therefore, the non-custodial parent will do himself a great favor if he respects the lifestyle established previously at home and the custodial parent’s food, education, cultural and musical choices, and other guidelines. We don’t want to use the child as a battleground for the couple’s issues. She will enjoy the visits when they do not include anything that creates inner conflict and disconnection with either of her parents. Anything that the child has to withhold and not tell becomes a painful force of disconnection and a reason the child may resist the visit. In addition, it causes the custodial parent to be less supportive of the visitations.
I am aware of the fact that some non-custodial parents refuse to cooperate, and I hope that this article will have a positive impact on some of them. Most non-custodial parents are fathers with soft and loving hearts, who just need a little clarity.
In reality, there will likely be some lifestyle and parenting differences between the two homes. On issues that you find you cannot change, you can empower your child to enjoy herself as well as understand your concerns. “At Daddy’s, you get to watch movies, with me we read and hike.” You can also explain your values without laying guilt and reassure your child that having a good time with Daddy is most important.
Some practical potential solutions
Visitation issues often stem from being forced to be away from Mommy (or the custodial parent), especially overnight. The following are a few creative ideas to solve this problem:
• If your relationship with your former husband is comfortable, join the visit. The child will love Daddy more if she does not lose Mommy every time he comes. Bring a book to read, and take time off while they play in his home or at the playground. In this way, life will be more similar to the way it used to be with two parents.
• Consider having the child’s father visit at your home, so the visit is not linked to being away from Mommy or even away from home.
• If you absolutely don’t want to be in the same space with your ex-partner, he can still visit in your home, and you can leave for the duration. You can go visit friends or the library, take a hike or otherwise treat yourself to time out, or rest in another room. For the child, the continuity of location, toys, food, bathroom, etc., can make things much smoother.
• Instead of the child having two homes, some couples (especially those who share custody) choose to keep the child in one home, and the parents are the ones moving in and out. The child experiences Mommy at home and then Daddy at home on different days. This may be a lot less stressful for the child.
• If the visit is too long, you can meet with your child and her father at the playground halfway through. She can keep playing with Daddy while you are present as well. You cut your break time, but you support your child’s relationship with her father.
• Shorter, more frequent visits are easier for most children and reassemble life the way it was. This is only possible if your former partner lives close by. Seeing Daddy daily for an hour or two may not be realistic, but getting close to it may be a happy solution, especially if he comes to play with your child in her home some of the days.
• If possible, until the child asks for it and sticks to it of her own free will, avoid overnights. We don’t have rights over the child. Instead, we are serving her autonomous needs, and her visits should be on her terms. Staying overnight is often associated with anxiety and refusal to visit. Even if a child enjoyed it once, it does not mean she will want to continue staying overnight on a regular basis. Postponing the sleepover will greatly benefit the father’s relationship with his child. He will not be the person whose presence is associated with anxiety. Instead, he will have more daytime visits with a happy and relaxed child who loves to see him.
Many visitation problems are avoided by keeping the focus on the child’s best interests and not on ourselves. The value of peace and flow for the child far outweighs any particular differences in our parenting opinions.
Unfortunately, courts do not usually order visitation arrangements consistent with secure attachment principles. One possible alternative solution is for cooperating parents to go to mediation together. The mediator can help them structure a parenting schedule that addresses their child’s attachment needs.
Some mediators suggest a gradual transition period, categorized by phases. Phase I could be day visits with the mother or primary caregiver present with the child and father or non-primary caregiver. After a period of six months, the non-primary caregiver starts taking the child for two-hour visits during the day without the primary caregiver. During the last phase, the non-primary caregiver has solo visitations with the child and possible overnight visits. If at this point the child is still not ready for solo visits or overnights, this should be respected by both parents.