The following concern that a mother expressed to us about their young child protesting visits to their father after a separation or divorce is one that scores of parents have posed to Lucy Daniels Center clinicians over the years. Every situation is a bit different, but we hope that our response in this situation would provide some guidance for other parents in similar situations.
Q. My former husband and I separated eighteen months ago. Our 4-year-old daughter, "Danielle," often protests visitations with her father. I have always disapproved of much of her father's parenting, but now I wonder if I should be concerned about what might be happening at her father's home?
A: Your question is a difficult one to answer with any confidence. Worrisome things certainly occur, more often than we would all wish. At the same time, many children protest visits even though their father provides a safe and loving home. In fact, sometimes each parents reports complaints about the other parent! We will explain some common reasons that children protest visits with a fine dad, with the hope that helps explain your situation.
The relationship between the parents: Children need to believe that each parent is powerful, good, and wise, even to an exaggerated or idealized extent. This view of parents is especially important for children's healthy development in their first six years. When parents separate, children often seek to attribute responsibility and blame, and this effort threatens their view that their parents are powerful, good, and wise. It is important that each parent help children maintain the necessary idealizations of parents. (Children will learn the truth about their parents' foibles in due time.) Therefore, separating parents face a daunting task. On behalf of their children, each parent must truly support their children's relationship with the other parent. Providing such support is often very difficult, because parents generally separate at a time when resentment, hurt, and conflicts are most extreme. You face the common situation that you disapprove of some aspects of his parenting. Perhaps he even has similar views about your parenting.
The importance of supporting a father's relationship: If the absence of your support for her relationship with her father, Danielle may not develop the necessary positive regard for her father, because it will be difficult for her to develop an emotional view independent of her beloved mother who knows all, is always right, and cannot feel good about her daddy. It is helpful, but not sufficient for you to tell Danielle that you want her to love her daddy. Danielle will respond more to your feelings than to your words. Therefore, effective support for Danielle requires that you really feel that Danielle is fortunate to have this fine person as her dad. That will not be easy, to say the least!
If Danielle's is in a situation in which she is trying to love a daddy who is not valued and respected by her mother, she may begin to feel disloyal for even wanting a close relationship - despite your verbal encouragement. This situation, known as a loyalty conflict, may ultimately interfere with children's relationships with both parents. Children often manage loyalty conflicts by protesting their relationship with one parent, most often the father. They often choose to preserve the relationship that is most associated with their need for basic security and safety. Children are generally not aware of these loyalty conflicts, and usually explain their feelings and behavior on other grounds - such as daddy is too strict (most daddies are stricter than mommies,) or daddy does not serve the right breakfast (few daddies can compete with mommy's cooking.)
Children's conflicts can be avoided when each parent can find a way to feel good about the other's parenting, even if the styles and philosophy are markedly different. This is often an exceedingly challenging task that takes a great deal of time. Of course, there are those unfortunate situations in which it would be unrealistic for a parent to feel good about the parenting of the other.
Issues of excessive separation: Children rely upon both parents for nurturing and a sense of emotional safety, but as we have mentioned, generally look to one parent particularly for these comforting feelings. We call this parent the primary parent of nurture. The primary parent of nurture is generally the parent who spent most time with the child in their first year, most commonly in our culture the mother. Custody arrangements should protect children from excessive lengths of time away from the primary parent of nurture, because young children begin to suffer emotional discomfort when they are separated for excessive periods of time from this primary parent. It is especially difficult for young children younger than four to be apart overnight from the parent of comfort. In these situations, children may protest going to their father because of the pain of being apart from mommy - not necessarily because of any problems with father. Daddy may not be able to adequately comfort because only one person in the world will do, rather than because of any parenting limitations. Making appropriate modifications to custody arrangements in which there are excessive separations may eliminate children's complaints about father and strengthen their relationship with both parents.
We understand that it is possible that something concerning is happening at Danielle's father's home. We urge you to consult a qualified professional if your worry is supported by anything that you know about Danielle's father in the past or currently or if Danielle tells you something especially concerning. If your child is having significant unexplained symptoms or severe behavioral changes which are temporally related to the non-custodial visit, this might also indicate a need for further evaluation. It is difficult to advise you about questioning your child. If your level of concern is high enough, you should gently inquire, but otherwise, please keep in mind that such questions convey a lack of confidence in Danielle's father's parenting. Whether or not it is appropriate to have a high level of concern about Danielle's father's behavior, we recommend that you think about the nature of the relationship between you and Danielle's father, as well as the appropriateness of the physical custody arrangements. Getting those two things right are keys to supporting your child to master the challenges of divorce.
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