Ex-etiquette: Why child dreads going back and forth

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Switching houses every few days can take its toll on a child. - Dreamstime/TNS/TNS

Q. My son is 9. His mother and I broke up a year and a half ago. Although we absolutely do not get along, we have been trying to share his time; he lives with both of us on a rotation, three days with her, four days with me, then her for four days, me for three. But each time he has to leave my home, I see the happy little boy slip away. Sometimes he tells me he doesn’t want to go, but he can’t tell me why. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. Don’t get into the ego trap that he likes you best, because it’s most likely not that at all.

First, he probably hates changing homes every few days and this is exacerbated by the fact that you and mom don’t get along. I’ve worked with many kids who just can’t settled down, anticipating that they will have to leave in a few days; and the fact that mom and dad don’t talk or continue to fight even though they no longer live together makes their child’s life miserable. Not long after the initial exchange, the child’s anxiety starts to creep in, and he or she starts to talk about not wanting to go back to the other house.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s telling mom the same thing. This is an educated guess, but you and mom have to get your stuff together. You probably don’t see it like this, but your continued arguing is emotionally abusing your child.

Most states regard joint custody as the norm. I know in California, where I worked for the court system, we often looked at the possibility of an equal custody split, but the logistics of where each parent lived or their job hours might have made it impossible.

Still, the deciding factor for me to support an equal custody split was how the parents interacted. If there is extreme animosity, I couldn’t recommend it in all good conscience. If the parents insisted, co-parenting classes were often required so that they could understand what their continued fighting did to their children.

Sometimes it worked, sometimes the parents were so engrossed in their own bitter battle, the welfare of their children didn’t matter. Did they see it that way? Rarely. Most of the time, those parents spoke of their right to have their child half the time, and that’s what mattered. And, so the kids went back and forth, dreading the exchanges every few days because the two people they loved more than anything hated each other.

The worst parents held everything in until the exchanges and then unloaded on the other parent right in front of the children. It’s no wonder the children were avoiding going to the other home. The exchanges always began with a fight.

So, if this or even something close is happening — maybe just complaining about your ex in front of your son — check yourself. And, if you can, set up a co-parenting counseling appointment and the two of you put some strategies in place so you don’t make your child an emotional and psychological wreck. This is when I hear parents say, “It’s not me. It’s her (or him). It’s probably both of you. Figure it out and stop it right now — for your son’s sake. That’s good ex-etiquette.

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(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com

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©2020 Jann Blackstone