Children and contact resistance: I hate it here I want to come home!
I often get asked by parents, when children are saying they are unhappy and/or want to come home from contact “what am I meant to do? Just leave them there?”. I agree there is nothing worse than your child crying to come home because they are unhappy at the home of your ex. It rips out your heart and makes you feel helpless.
This blog provides you with tips on how to respond to your child in a supportive way that doesn’t undermine the other parent, when they are asking to come home from contact.
All relationships are dynamic. People can be manipulative, mean, controlling, abusive with one person but not with another.
The risk is that you interpret behaviours of your ex and/or messages from your children post separation based on your personal experience which is not necessarily either the intention of your ex or the effect it has on others.
Simply put, your children’s relationship with your ex isn’t going to be exactly the same as your relationship with them.
Is the child saying what you want to hear?
Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a child’s expressed unhappiness is a reflection on the other parent what might really be happening could be much more benign.
What you need to do is Stop and ask yourself: Is the child saying what I want to hear?
Children are highly suggestible to begin with. Children whose parents are conflicted and separate are particularly high risk of becoming chameleons ( a type of lizard that changes it colours to fit in with their surroundings).They risk compromising their emotional maturity in the short-term interest of fitting in to each of the two disparate environments.
In such cases a dangerous new dynamic may be at work. The child who has learnt to read her environment will register that sending their parent messages about their unhappiness with the other parent works well and/or is met with confirmation and support.
The result is a big horrible thing can be manufactured out of nothing at all.
Below is a scenario over a bowl of rice that seems innocuous at first but in reality highlights how easy it is to undermine parent child relationships and keep fuelling the conflict between parents.
The bowl of rice
The parents in this scenario were in a high conflict separation. This exchange between Mum and "Child A" took place via text when the child was having an overnight with her Dad.
Child A : Dad sent me to bed with only a bowl of rice for dinner.
Mum: Baby that’s horrible why?
Child A: He is being mean I hate it here!
Mum: I’m sorry xoxoxo
Child A: I want to come home!!!
Child A: I’m hungry he won’t give me food!!!!
Mum: I can’t come get you, Dad won’t let me, there’s a court order. You have to stay there.
Child A: Mum I hate this, it sux.
Mum: I’ll call my lawyer tomorrow.
Dad cooked dinner for the children. It was plain rice with veges in a curry. Child A decided that it was too spicy and refused to eat the curry. Child B had no problem and ate the meal. Dad decided he wasn’t going to cook a separate meal for Child A and said you can just have the rice, which she did.
Child A then went to her bedroom with her phone and complained to her mother.
The mother in this case had an experience of a controlling passive aggressive partner and a relationship that left her without any self-confidence. She interpreted Dad’s actions as abusive but felt helpless as there was a court order in place for the overnight contact.
Mum struggled to see that her adult relationship with this man would and could be different to her children’s relationship with him.
How to respond when they complain about the other parent
What child won’t resist a more structured and demanding home?
This is an example of a routine difference in parenting styles. Dad’s approach wasn’t harmful he simply wanted to teach Child A about behavioural expectations and consequences. Mum read this communication as confirmation of her view that the Dad is inappropriate and controlling (her experience from her adult relationship with him).
Whether the child sent this message consciously or unconsciously for support is unknown.
What is known is that how we respond to such calls/texts can make a difference for the child and their ongoing relationship with their parent. Sending subtle messages of parenting unity is better than creating a divide as was done above.
A suggested response might go along the lines of the below and will result in a different outcome for the child.
Child A: Dad sent me to bed with only a bowl of rice for dinner.
Mum: Really, why?
Child A: He is being mean I hate it here
Mum: I’m sorry to hear that honey, but if you have a problem with Dad at his place it’s good to find your voice and talk to him. I’m sure he had some good reasons for what he did.
Child A: I want to come home, I can’t talk to him about anything!
Child A: I’m hungry he won’t give me food
Mum: It’s important you stay where you are, time with Dad is special. Dad and I will have a talk tomorrow about meals, maybe you can draw up a list of your favourite foods so he knows what they are, that would be fun.
Child A: Okay Mum I can do that.