When the Other Parent is Poisonous
When the Other Parent is Poisonous
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. Having the mom in jail is a bit unusual, but this situation is very common with separated parents. Usually, of course, the child is living with mom and goes to Dad for the weekend. But the story is often the same: when she comes back from the visits she is either more disruptive and badly behaved, or strangely morose 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 essentially two different scenarios.
The first is similar to our reader's, in which the 'other' parent is, in some way 'poisonous'. The second is when there is simply a difference of parenting styles between one home and the other. In this article I will just deal with the former.
There are several features suggestive of such 'poison'. One is that of being unreliable for visits - promising to call or show up, but then failing to do so. Often children desperately hope that, this time, dad will phone, or come, or send a present, and yet, time after time, they are let down again.
Then, when they do go for a visit, they are often ignored, or merely have to fit in with the adult's own (often inappropriate) plans. In other words, despite their protestations of how much they care, the child is clearly very low on their list of priorities.
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.
Then, in addition to their unreliability, they may also use the child as a pawn to convey messages (usually uncomplimentary) to the custodial parent.
Or they may just spend the whole weekend criticizing and derogating the mother. 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. Unfortunately, parents who are this slippery, are often equally difficult to deal with through the courts.
They are adept at casting themselves in a good light, since there is rarely any factual evidence to back up mom's complaints.
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. What you can get, however, is some very clear agreement regarding visits:
When will they happen?
At what precise time?
What about phone calls during the week?
What happens if they other parent does not show up?
Then, having got that clarity, stick to it.
Do not allow phone calls outside of the prescribed times.
Do not allow the times of the visits to be changed to the other's convenience.
If the agreement is for the child to be picked up between 5pm and 6pm on Friday, then wait until 6pm only. If there is another no-show, go out! Do not be available when he finally turns up at 8.30pm expecting to pick up his daughter.
Keep a record of exactly what happens and when. You will need this when you go back to court. You may also want to seek expert opinions to testify as to the effects of all of this on the child. In the meantime, continue to be as affirming, warm, positive and supportive for the times when she is with you.
Do not make excuses for the other parent's failures. But also do not go on about them either. Focus on making the times with you as secure and 'normal' as you can.
If none of this is improving the situation, you may need to go to even more drastic measures, such as moving to a different town or state, so as to make the visits more impractical. But be very careful how you go about this, as you do not want to put yourself in the wrong.
And make VERY sure that it is truly the other parent who is being the poisonous one - and not just you having a bias and prejudice against anything your ex-partner might say or do.
I have seen that, too!
author of When the Other Parent is Poisonous is Dr Noel Swanson MD
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