It’s Friday evening at 5:45 p.m. and Sam’s Dad arrives to pick up Sam for weekend parenting time. Sam hears the doorbell ring, hears his Mom answer and then hears the voices get louder and louder. He goes downstairs and sees his parents in the foyer. They are yelling at each other and he hears his name several times. Dad is mad that he’s not ready. Mom is mad that Dad didn’t bring a check for medical bills. Dad is accusing Mom of always starting arguments. Mom is mad that Dad is fifteen minutes early. Sam hides in another room feeling ashamed that he makes both his parents so unhappy and that he is the cause of all their fights.
Parenting time exchanges are sometimes the only face-to-face time that co-parents get. The temptation is to use that time to discuss parenting issues, delve into old arguments and exchange payments for parenting expenses. But that assumes that the parenting time exchanges belong to the parents and can be used for getting the sometimes tense business of parenting completed. What if the child owned this time? How would that change how it is used?
It’s true that parenting time exchanges are sometimes the only face-to-face contact between co-parents, but also consider that exchanges are the only times that a child sees his parents together. If parents use this time to settle differences or discuss difficult issues, the child sees parents who cannot get along. Worse yet, the arguments are all about the child or issues related to the child. It’s hard for a child to understand that he is not somehow at fault.
Treating parenting time exchanges as periods of time which belong to the child helps to protect a child from becoming part of and blaming himself for the differences between his parents. Those differences often spring from issues which originate in a prior romantic relationship between the parents which does not directly involve the child. Since the child is the reason that former spouses or romantic partners are still in contact, the poor communication and hurt feelings left over from the romantic relationship make their way into the parental communication. When parents treat the time as belonging to the child, it becomes clear that the leftover feelings from a broken romantic relationship have no place.
There are simple rules that parents can implement for parenting time exchanges which acknowledge that it is a time that is important to and which belongs to the child. First, parents can ensure that the child is ready physically and emotionally for the parenting time exchange. This includes packing any belongings which will travel with the child. It also includes speaking positively about the parenting time about to occur with the other parent. Lamenting out loud about how much you will miss a child only serves to make the child anxious and unsettled.
The second rule that parent can implement is to always greet one another with a hello and a smile. This simple interaction between co-parents can put a child at ease and eliminate the tendency of children to worry about their parents or to take responsibility for the moods of their parents. It is unlikely you would treat a child’s teacher badly in front of your child even if you were not a particular fan of the teacher. Adopt the same philosophy about parenting time exchanges. Even if you are not the greatest fan of your co-parent, act cordial. It goes a long way toward making your child feel safe.
Third, parents can commit to handle all the business of parenting like exchange of money, scheduling and rescheduling and decision discussions outside of parenting time exchanges. If you prefer to have those discussions in person, schedule a time to have coffee with your co-parent.
There is no reason Sam should blame himself for the poor behavior of his parents, and this is not likely the intention of either parent. It is up to parents to be the adults and to take the actions necessary to protect the emotional well being of their children. Model good behavior even if you are faking it. The impact on your children will be worth it.