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Parenting Advice: When The Other Parent Is Poisonous

Jan 12, 2008
Q. My stepdaughter is 4, and her real mother is constantly in and out of jail and has 86 felonies. She gets visitation every other weekend, (If she shows up). Every time our daughter comes back from her visitation she is a completely different child. When she gets home she just sits there for hours on end and won't say anything.

A. This is, indeed, an unusual situation, though it is very common with separated parents. Generally, the child living with the mother goes to the father for the weekend. But the effect of the meeting is the same: the child behaves queerly - either loud and noisy or absolutely sad and silent.

So what do you do? It is a very difficult situation.

First, let's be quite clear that putting the child into some sort of therapy is very unlikely to make much of a difference. This is something that needs to be sorted out by the adults.

There are basically two different situations. One is when one of the parents is causing the problem; and the other is just the differences between parents and homes. In this article I am going to focus on the former - the problem parent.

How do you identify the problem? There are various features that suggest that. For instance, the parent can't be relied on. He/she promises to call or come, but fails to do so. This raises the hopes of the child and heightens the disappointment later on.

It often happens that the other parent either ignores the child or makes him fit into his plans willingly or unwillingly. At the same time he makes tall claims of love and care for the child. This confuses and hurts the child because the actions betray their true feelings, and children are quick to feel that.

Often too, it is not just the child who is caught up with the manipulations. Many times I have seen mothers changing their plans at the last minute to accommodate a sudden pronouncement from the other as to what they will, or won't, do this weekend.

Some parents are so caught up in their emotions that they, intentionally or inadvertently, start using the child as a messenger for conveying unpleasant remarks about each other. This is damaging for the child. It gives him wrong ideas and he may develop an attitude to play one parent against the other for personal gains.

All of this is very harmful to the child, as it undermines all sense of worth and belonging. They desperately want to be loved and accepted, yet at every turn they seem to be cast off by this parent who, at the same time, keeps saying how much they care.

These kinds of parents are difficult to deal with even in the courts because they are experts in talking smoothly but their words are hollow. They don't mean what they say. And, the court has to take the case at its face value.

If you find yourself in this situation, you need to take some strong and decisive action. But it won't be easy.

First step is probably to seek some clarity through mediation or the courts. This is one of the rare situations when access to the other parent probably should be denied. However, getting the courts to agree will probably be difficult.

If that option is not likely, then get a clear agreement regarding visits, including the date, time and duration etc. But, the problem is of the other parent not showing up despite the promises.

Once you know the broad framework of the weekly schedule, stick to it. Be firm and refuse any deviations from the agreed terms. Do not let the other parent change the times of the visits. If the other parent has agreed to pick up the child at a particular time, then wait only till then and follow your own plans thereon. There is no need to be available whenever he turns up at his convenience.

It's important to record all these events; they will come in handy in court. Also, think of consulting a counselor to help you deal with the harmful effects of this on your child. And, they will testify these effects on the child in court.

Whatever be the situation, it is important for you to be warm and affectionate towards the child. Remember, these visits and the unfulfilled promises hurt the child much more and he is not old enough to handle that. As an adult and a parent, you have to be magnanimous and provide positive support to your child at such times.

Remember, this is not a comfortable situation for both of you. If you feel none of this is working, think of moving to a different town or state, so that the problem of weekly visits is taken care of once and for all. This is the last resort and should be taken after cool consideration, lest you become the bad guy. Take some time to think of the situation. You may want to talk it over with a friend or counselor before you take such a step. Don't let your prejudice against the other parent blur your reason. It happens to people; it may be happening to you. Make sure you are not over reacting.
About the Author
Dr. Noel Swanson has years of experience in helping parents with their children's behaviors. To read more of his expert parenting advice visit his website and check out his GOOD CHILD Guide manual, jammed full of practical parenting advice.
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