Q: I separated from my wife two years ago when my daughter was 14 months old. It was a difficult time, with a lot of conflict with my wife, and I did not see my daughter for a few months. About four months ago I got back into regular contact with my daughter through the courts, and I am to have access twice a week. The problem is my daughter is often reluctant to come with me. My ex-wife tells me my daughter is anxious about the contact and upset when she comes back, but I am not sure whether to believe my ex, who just wants me out of her life.
A: In the context of conflictual separation, it is a challenge for the parent who leaves the home – usually the father – to maintain contact with children, especially when they are very young. Your situation is made harder by the fact that there was a long gap in contact with your daughter, meaning that you are effectively at the stage of trying to re-establish a relationship with her. Given that she is so young, and primarily attached to her mother, she may well be anxious about the contact and unsettled by this.
Find a way of getting the support of her mother
The key to moving forward is to try to get the co-operation of your daughter’s mother. The more her mother can be positive and reassuring about your role in her life, the more easily your daughter will settle.
When her mother raises concerns about your daughter being reluctant, ask her for advice and assistance in helping your daughter settle and enjoy contact with you. How can you change how visits are organised to make her more comfortable? Could you spend some time playing with her in her home, with her own toys and so on, with the clear support of her mother? Or could the three of you visit a playground together and let your daughter see her mother’s support on the trip?
The more your daughter sees the two of you communicating civilly and normally, the easier it will be to have contact. Alternatively, could you visit another family member such as grandparents during your contact time, or could you take her to a playgroup or on an activity she is familiar with, as this might put her at her ease?
If it is hard to negotiate with her mother about contact, consider getting some help and going to family mediation or some other support services such as fsa.ie; parentsplus.ie/separation; parentalequality.ie; solo.ie.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.