My son is unsettled after weekends with his father

boy-on-sofaQ: My seven-year-old son spends every second weekend (Friday to Sunday evening) with his father, my ex-husband. (We separated 18 months ago.) When he comes back from the visits he doesn’t talk to me about what went on over the weekend. He is often very tired and upset, and it can take a few days for him to get back into his routine. Should I change his access with his father, perhaps shortening the visit? I know his father would object to this.

A: Even though children really benefit from ongoing relationships and contact with both parents after separation, they are often unsettled at the time leading up to or immediately following a handover between parents. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, depending on the circumstances of the separation, parents themselves can be stressed about handovers: they can dread meeting the other parent (however briefly) and there can be lots of practical issues (clothes, diet, homework, other arrangements) that need to be communicated at the time of handover.

In addition, children can be stressed at handover: they can pick up on their parents’ worries; or be anxious about seeing a parent after a gap; or they can find it hard to manage the practicalities (not having their stuff in a second home, being away from friends, and so on).

Also, the handover can bring up painful memories of the separation or remind them of the losses they have experienced. It is important to tune into your son and to think what might be upsetting him. Be patient as he may not be able to articulate fully what is going on for him.

Negotiating contact and handovers with his father
I wouldn’t recommend changing the contact with his father without first negotiating this with your ex-husband. Shortening the visits may not be the answer as this curtails the benefits of contact with his father. (Indeed, some of your son’s upset could be caused by the fact that the visits are too infrequent and he would be more settled if his father had more regular contact.)

However, it is worth thinking through how you can make the transition times more settled for your son. Ideally, it would be best if you could discuss these issues directly with his father and agree a plan. The key to negotiation is to focus on a goal centred on your son’s needs – How can we help him settle after contact? – and to be constructive and positive – What can we both do to help?
Arrange to meet his father to go through these issues, and seek the help of a mediator if such a conversation might be difficult.

Agreeing a good routine for contact with his father
Predictability and routines are key to helping children settle so try to agree these with his father as much as possible. It could be that the routine in his father’s house is not helping the situation. For example, it is common that separated fathers, out of a wish to pack as many “good times” in as possible, make the weekend a very intense experience for their child.

It might be better for his father to include a “winding-down” period at the end of the visit or to take on board some of the preparation for school the next day. In addition, you could consider adjusting the contact to more frequent, shorter visits as opposed to a long weekend every two weeks, which would make your son’s contact with his father more regular and normal. This is all something to negotiate with his father.

Contact/ handover book
A good way to improve handovers is for you and his father to agree to take time to communicate, before and after contact, about your son’s new practical arrangements. Understandably, handover can be a pressurised time and lots of separated parents find it useful to use a contact handover book to facilitate this coparenting conversation.

To work well, the book travels with the child and each parent fills it in before handover, describing relevant details that need to be communicated; for example, what the child ate, how he slept, whether he did his homework, and so on, as well as some general details about what the child did on contact and how he was feeling.

Generally, the book can be transparently shared and seen by the child, and usually they are very happy about the idea as it takes them out of being a “go between” for news which is something they generally don’t like. If a contact book is not practical, an alternative is to send a text or email before handover to communicate these details.

Talking about what goes on during his time with his father
It is also very normal for children not to talk much about their visits with the other parent. Often they have a sense of divided loyalty and are worried about saying something that will offend one parent. Many children tell me that they feel under pressure to report back to one parent, and feel uncomfortable about this. Making sure you and his father communicate directly with each other about parenting issues lessens this, and the contact/handover book can assist this.

While you should give him space and privacy, it is also important to encourage your child to talk about contact in a normal everyday way, as he might talk about being at school. Adopting a relaxed nonpressured approach is the best way. It can help to ask specific, rather than general, questions. For example, “Your father said [in the book] that you went to a football match. Who did you see play? What happened in the game?” Encouraging normal chit-chat can be very helpful in opening up conversation.

Take a long-term view
The stress of handovers usually diminishes for children as they get older and settle into a routine and become reassured by the support of both their parents.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.