Dear Dr Justin,
I have 3 children, aged 8, 6, and 4. My ex- hands them over to me every second weekend from Friday afternoon at swimming lessons. I have them until Sunday late afternoon.
My eldest boy has started to shout, scream, hit me, rip things in the car, etc. This is because his mother sits there with her new partner (who has moved into the family home after a short while of knowing each other). My son wants to go with his mother. I have asked her to leave when I get there but she doesn’t and sits and watches this take place.
My other two children are fine and go with me quite happily and my daughter has even asked to live with me but says she knows she can’t. She doesn’t like the new partner in her mum’s life.
I am very stressed with the situation. Do I give in to my son’s tantrum and let him go with his mum. The next day he’s fine and enjoys being me for the rest of the weekend.
What do I do?
Dr Justin responds:
Separation can be awful – for everyone. Parents are stressed, and all-too-often look for ‘point-scoring’ opportunities. Children are confused. Loyalties are tested. Tempers are frayed. Hearts are broken.
My first suggestion would be that you instigate another gentle conversation with your ex – AND her partner. Approach them respectfully and ask if you can talk about something that’s troubling you. Consider the following steps:
- Tell them you can see that they really like watching the swim lesson.
- Ask them if they’ve noticed that your eldest gets upset.
- See if they’re willing to offer any suggestions to overcome the “handover” challenge.
Typically in these situations, one person will rush in with guns blazing. “You won’t listen. You’re hurting our son. If you’d just leave before he gets in the pool we wouldn’t have this problem!” This puts the other person on the defensive. Positive outcomes are hard to achieve.
Instead, in this situation the more you defer to them, the more likely it is that you’ll get a result. So long as they give you a result you can live with, that may be good enough.
This could go pear-shaped, so there are a few other things to consider.
Try hard to understand your son
When he is having a tantrum, ensure he doesn’t hurt anyone or anything, and leave him be. The following day when he is calm, spend some time one-on-one.
Be aware that he might be angry at you because you’re no longer with mum. Perhaps he is afraid – whether justifiably or not. Be prepared that his view of the world may not be comfortable for you, and be ok with that.
Label his emotions
You might do this while he is mad, and certainly in your one-on-one time. While he is mad, you can show him you understand by saying, “You hate it when you have to come with me and you’d rather be with mum.” This is very hard to say. It’s also the opposite of what you’d probably like to say, which is, “Look, sit down, be quiet, stop hitting. You’re coming with me. End of story. Get used to it.” But a softer understanding response will usually help him calm down faster because he knows you get it.
In your one-on-one with him, try “You get super upset when it’s time to leave mum and come with me. But then you’re happy once you’re here. It’s a really hard, confusing time isn’t it.” These kinds of statements show you understand, and encourage communication.
Ask gentle questions
Once your son feels understood, it is time to get him talking. Rather than lecturing, listen. Ask him, “Are you really angry? Or confused?” Focus on his emotions. But also ask him questions like, “Why do you think you get so upset when it’s time to say goodbye to mum?”
If you’re not getting much response, resist the urge to lecture. Pause. Stay quiet. Listen. You might prompt him by saying, “I guess that you hate that we’re not together and it makes you feel bad.” But try to keep your interjections to a minimum.
Collaborate on solutions
As you chat about things, ask him, “What do you think is the best way to deal with things?” Or “What can I do to help you feel better about that transition?” Develop ideas together to solve the problem, ideally being led by him. If one of his ideas is a bit silly or sounds like a bribe, like: “I’d be happy if you took us to our favourite restaurant when you pick us up”, just smile and respond with, “Well, that’s one idea. Let’s see if we can come up with some others that don’t involve bribes!”
Ultimately, an 8 year-old needs his dad. Plus, there are lawful custody requirements to adhere to. The idea of all of this is to help him willingly and gladly go along with the custody requirements. But at the end of the day, we sometimes have to put our arm around our kids, tell them we know they don’t like it, but that’s just the way it is.
In spite of everything, only speak well of their mum, be a safe place for them, never do anything to undermine their trust, and make their time with you awesome.