It was a Monday morning, the start of the work week. I was deep in thought working on the usual paperwork.
My voicemail notification brought me back to earth, and I clicked on it to listen to the message.
It was a message from a tired sounding mom who requested that I call her back.
I was able to chat with her later that day and she explained tearfully, that she was worried about her daughter.
During my first meeting with Mom, she poured out her concerns. With tears in her eyes, she spoke about her daughter, (let’s call her Annie) who was 5 years old.
Mom shared her story
It was a story which was not unlike other stories I had heard, but it still made my heart sad for Annie.
Mom and Dad had fallen in love at a young age, got married and got pregnant within the second year of their marriage.
The first year had been fun and although they had a few ups and downs, for the most part, things were good.
Once Mom was pregnant, she noticed that there was a difference in their relationship. Dad seemed to be hanging out with his friends more, they were doing less together, and they were having more arguments.
Once the baby was born, they bonded over this new bundle of joy that they had brought into the world and things seemed to be getting better.
Until one day, things seemed to change
Dad came home after being out with his friends. Mom reported that he had been drinking. They got into a fight and he became very angry. For the first time, she felt afraid.
About a week later, the same thing happened, except this time he backed her into a corner yelling and posturing in a threatening way. Mom felt so threatened that she ended up calling the police.
Following this, Mom asked Dad to leave, feeling a sense of defeat after three and a half years of marriage. Dad immediately complied with this request.
A few months later, they filed for divorce.
Fast forward to this day
The day where Mom told me that sharing a child with her ex was one of the most painful things she has ever had to do.
The day that Mom shared that her child cried and begged her not to send her to stay with her daddy when it was his weekend to have Annie.
I could feel Mom’s pain and her deep concern for her child.
This was real.
I couldn’t imagine what it must be like for this mom to have to witness her child’s distress every other weekend, crying, begging, pleading “mommy please don’t make me go.”
It was heartbreaking.
I let her share her deep pain and held the pain with her for a time. I knew that sometimes this is all we can do for one another.
After we sat together like this for a few minutes, I inquired more about the situation.
Mom explained that the judge had ordered the usual every other weekend with Dad. At first, Annie seemed to be ok with it. Mom said that although Annie never loved the idea, she complied without the meltdowns.
But lately, Annie became distressed every time she had to go with her Dad.
Mom admitted to thinking all kinds of thoughts as to what might be happening at her Dad’s house to cause Annie so much distress?
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, then read on, my dear parent
I want to say two things right off the bat.
First, always take your child’s concerns seriously. This does not mean that something terrible is necessarily happening, but pay attention and investigate further.
Second, take a deep breath. This can be a normal reaction from a child this age. It is not abnormal for children at this age to develop separation anxiety.
This is a time limited anxiety that will get better as they get older. Usually, it resolves on its own. It can be helpful to have your child see a play therapist if it continues to cause a lot of distress for your child.
And so, although not abnormal, it’s not the norm for every child either.
During this time of separation anxiety, children can become very upset and distressed when they are separated from their closest primary attachment figure. Most of the time, this is mom.
This is never to devalue dads. (I was raised by a very loving single dad, so I’m partial to dads raising kids). However, usually a child spends the most time with their mom and thus Mom becomes the most significant attachment figure.
Our kids growing brains
In the beginning, kids will have the memories of the intact family and spending time with Dad. But since their little brains are developing and changing so quickly at this age, they quickly lose a sense of some of that bonding time with Dad. This is especially true if only spending weekends with him, without any contact in between visits. This was true for Annie’s situation.
I explained to this distraught Mom that because Annie was a sensitive child, not only the length of time between visits with her Dad but also because Mom was quite anxious and at times vocal about her own concerns about Dad, little Annie was just not feeling connected to her Dad.
Although Dad had made some poor choices while in his relationship with Mom, he was more responsible in his role as Dad.
Through contact with family members who were familiar with Annie’s visits to her Dad, Mom did confirm that he was indeed a loving father when Annie came to visit him.
After several play sessions with Annie to help her play out her distress and anxiety about leaving Mom and inadvertently absorbing mom’s anxiety, she was doing much better with the visits to Dad.
Here were the suggestions I shared with Mom to help minimize Annie’s distress:
- Dad and Annie needed to focus on some intentional bonding activities during their visits
- Dad and Annie might consider having a phone session 1-2 times per week in between visits
- Both parents needed to regularly speak positively about the other parent, and about spending time with the other parent
- Mom needs to make sure to keep her anxiety from Annie
- Both parents should talk to Annie about her concerns and reassure her regularly about her visits to the non-custodial home (in this case with Dad)
- Both parents needed to develop a structured transition plan
The happily ever after ending to this story is that Annie did eventually outgrow her separation anxiety. She did have more regular phone contacts with Dad. And both parents worked to keep their personal feelings about the other parent separate from Annie.
What about you my dear parent? Are there some struggles your child is having with transitioning between mom and dad’s homes?