In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have
worked with children of all ages for over twenty years.
Usually parents drag their kids into my office complaining
of a litany of bad behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up
their rooms, to getting bad grades, hitting their siblings,
or worse, stealing, fighting or doing drugs. I work with
parents to change their children’s behavior. It is very
helpful for the parents to know their children’s experiences.
This article addresses what the child experiences just before,
and then during visitation. Please read the previous three
articles in this series before reading this one.
Pre-visit jitters is my term for what the child
experiences just as s/he is about to leave one parent to visit
the other. There is the mourning or loss of leaving what has
become comfortable; that is, the child is familiar with the
routines in the house s/he is about to leave. Why would the
child want to change this and go to some “other” house where the
routines are not the same? The child becomes anxious and usually
becomes more difficult to control. This is especially true when
the child is younger (under six). Usually the child experiences
anxiety, which in younger children is usually acted out.
Signs of this are increased motor behavior in all areas,
culminating in doing one or more things that “test” parents.
The testing is often secondary to the real aim of the behavior,
which is to discharge uncomfortable impulses. The parent has to
“clamp down” just a little more to get the child to “get ready” to
visit (the other parents), which often spoils the tone of either visit.
The child final is ready and exits the first parent’s house,
usually driving to other parent’s place. In hostile divorce cases,
the drop off point is often a neutral place. In my geographic region,
this is the McDonald’s parking lot. Often the receiving parent uses
this opportunity to feed the child while letting them run off this
“extra energy” at the McDonalds playground. The first parent exits
as the child now expresses the tension of the transition to the receiving
parent. This is unfortunate because it is not necessarily the fault
of the receiving parent that the child feels anxious, and then acts out
on them. However, as the saying goes, “The planet closest to the sun
takes the most heat.”
Sooner or later, the child will calm down and the receiving parent
will taxi the child to the “other” home for some period. The child will
feel some anxiety entering this “new” environment, even though the
receiving parent is familiar to the child, and even though after many such
exchanges, the routine and changes will also be more familiar. Again, the
younger the child, the more prolonged and difficult the emotional reaction
can be. It is also worthwhile to note, that this same pattern can also be
very difficult with teenagers. Teenagers have friends and like to
“hang out” more with them than with parents. This becomes very evident at
age 13 and is completely normal. Changing venues can be disruptive to
social activities, so teen resistance to going to the other parent’s house
can be formidable. Because teenagers can act out in more ways than
toddlers or slightly older children, their resistance can take the form of
sometimes-aggressive behavior. In either the case of the younger child or
teens, the approach to dealing with this transition phenomena is the same;
namely, sit down with the child and ask them to describe every feeling they
have, using words, not acting out. With younger kids, we first have to
teach them a vocabulary of their feelings. With older kids, we first have
to teach them how to behave so that that the parents will listen first,
The last in this series of five articles will deal with the issues that frequently arise during the visits.