Transitions between parents and homes can be challenging for children, just ask any parent who has ever tried to drop a child off at preschool! The transition of moving from one parent’s home to the other’s for parenting time can be even more difficult, and often, the child will cry when having to leave one home for the other. This can be stressful for the parent who is being left, who may not be all that enthusiastic about the child leaving to spend time with the other parent. What does it mean when a child cries at parenting time transitions, and what should you do?
Depending on your child’s age, he or she may cry, cling, beg not to go, or even throw a tantrum. You may interpret this as your child not enjoying the time he or she spends with their other parent (and you may get a secret feeling of satisfaction from this, even as you feel bad for your child). You might even worry that the other parent is being abusive, especially if he or she tended toward anger and violence while you were together. While concerns like these aren’t unfounded in all cases, you may be relieved to know that there are many other explanations for you child crying at parenting time transitions.
Five Reasons Children Might Resist Going With The Other Parent
Your Child Doesn’t Want to Leave You.
It may not be that your child doesn’t want to go with the other parent, but that he or she doesn’t want to leave you. Remember that children usually love both their parents dearly, and your child has just spent the last few (or several) days being comfortable with you in your home. At the time of transition, your child may not be focused on how much he or she will enjoy being with the other parent—only that he or she is happy now, and is expected to leave that situation.
Your Child is Reacting to Your Emotions.
Another possibility is that your child is looking forward to time with the other parent, but senses that you are sad or conflicted about it. Children are remarkably good at picking up on our emotions and nonverbal cues. What you interpret as your child feeling sad might really be a reflection of your own emotions about the situation.
This often isn’t even conscious on the child’s part, but sometimes an older child will deliberately downplay enthusiasm about an upcoming visit because he or she doesn’t want to make you sadder. Children can be very protective of their parents’ feelings, out of love or a sense of self-preservation. Children are also put in a position of loyalty conflicts when they perceive that a parent is forced to permit them to spend time with the other parent.
Parenting Time is a Reminder of the Divorce.
It’s also possible that the fact of having to leave for parenting time is a reminder to your young child that you and the other parent are no longer together. Remembering this all over again is very hard for small children, whose dearest wish is often to have both parents with them all the time.
Some Children Just Struggle With Transition.
Also, some children, like some adults, just shift gears more easily than others. It’s entirely possible that a child who struggles with transitions will cry and cling for the half-hour leading up to the transition, but be completely fine once in the other parent’s car. If you’ve ever had a crying child pried from your leg by a preschool teacher, only to be assured that he or she was fine after you left, this is similar.
The Child is Genuinely Afraid to Be With the Other Parent.
Of course, there is always the possibility of some darker reason that your child does not want to go with the other parent. If you see evidence of abuse, or your child describes something troubling, pay attention and contact your attorney and, if necessary, the authorities. Don’t jump to conclusions just because your child cries at parenting time transitions. If your ex wasn’t abusive during the marriage, it’s unlikely he or she has become so since your divorce.
How to Respond to Tough Transitions
Few things are more difficult for parents than having their tearful young child beg them not to leave. Some children get themselves so worked up they may even make themselves ill. As a wise person once said, when our children are upset, our job them is not to join them in their chaos, but to share with them our calm.
This means, even if we don’t feel like it, we calmly and unequivocally tell our children that parenting time will happen. You can give your child choices within that reality, such as, “Mom is coming to pick you up in ten minutes. Do you want to meet her on the porch or in the living room?” Children take comfort in being able to predict their lives, and should be informed of the plans made, which day or what time they will be with the other parent, as well as which day and what time they will come back to you. Share details that you know of events the other parent has planned, show enthusiasm for the fun your child will have going to that movie, the interesting things she will see at the museum, or how nice it will be to spend time with Grandma.
Avoid piling on guilt to the stress children are feeling by telling them they have to go or the other parent will be sad or hurt to see them crying. The emotions children feel are real and overwhelming, and they shouldn’t be shamed for feeling them. Acknowledge the emotion, give your child words to express what is going on, and assure your child he or she will be okay. “I can see how sad you are to leave, and I’m so sorry about that. I know it’s hard to leave when you’re in the middle of playing. But it’s important for you and Daddy to have time together, just like you do with Mommy. And I know you will have a good time once you get settled.”
Lastly, although you will miss your child, don’t talk about how sad you will be while the child is gone. You don’t want your child feeling guilty about leaving or worrying about you. Rather, encourage your child to enjoy time with the other parent as sincerely as you can. “I will miss having you here, but I will be okay, and I know you will have a great time with Mom. I can’t wait for you to tell me all about it when you get back!” Then, give extra hugs and kisses, and gently help your child leave with the other parent by speaking calmly and professionally with the other parent, sharing information (“Susie has a role in the school play!”), walking your child to the door or the car, and waving goodbye with a smile on your face and in your heart, knowing your child will return to you.
If you have more questions about managing difficult parenting time transitions, we encourage you to contact our law office.
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