If you’ve gotten through my previous posts and have mastered ‘beginner’ and ‘intermediate’ strategies to reduce conflict with the other parent, you might be ready for some more advanced strategies.
Eliminate the Scarcity Mindset
Stop keeping track of your time with the children. A scarcity mindset can lead you to keep frustration, a deep sense of injustice or anger boiling away under the surface. It can keep you from having any positive interactions with the other parent and lead to further conflict.
Instead of pining for what you don’t have, try to enjoy what you do have in the present moment when you’re with your child. Put your phone away and focus on the children. Make sure the time you spend with your children is quality, interactive time and make every moment count. Be curious about your kids and what is going on for them.
Keeping score of the hours you’ve had versus those ‘owed’ can impact negatively on your relationship with your children without you being aware of it. If you are desperate to make every moment count or spend your time with them fuming that ‘you should have more time’, your mood and therefore your interactions with them have a high likelihood of being negatively impacted.
This might be especially difficult if you don’t have an equal time arrangement and you are the parent who spends less time with the kids. It’s not fair to you. I get it. That’s why this is an advanced strategy. But you’re an adult and I’m sure you know by now that life is NOT fair and sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes equal time is just not practical and it might not be in your control (for example, if there are court orders). What can you do to make the best of a bad situation keeping in mind the best interests of the children?
Take the case of one father who was obsessed over getting every single minute he was ‘owed’. One Friday handover was delayed because one child returned home from school camp late by several hours after the bus broke down. At handover the father couldn’t contain his anger over the injustice done to him because his time was reduced. He demanded that the mother ‘make the time up to him’ even though she had no control over the situation. She responded in anger, and the kids witnessed a nasty verbal altercation between their parents. The father then terrorised his children by speeding away and driving erratically whilst ranting and raving that he was missing out on a precious few hours with them. The entire weekend was ‘ruined’, not by the bus company but by the father’s decision to make the count of time spent with the children more important than the experience of spending time with them.
How can I improve the time I spend with my children?
Can you be curious about your children? What do your kids enjoy doing? What do you enjoy doing? Can you find something you can all do together that you all enjoy, or can you find a way to enjoy one of their favourite activities? Can you refrain from forcing something you enjoy, that they really dislike, down their throats?
Sometimes it can be really challenging to find something you can all do together, especially if the kids are pushing boundaries and insisting they hate everything except being on technology (that’s their job, after all). Keep trying, gently, and never give up. There are a multitude of websites and books that cover this topic. Still struggling? Try a mum’s group, dad’s group, local charities often run free or low-cost parenting classes, meetup group, contact your local council or community centre, ask at the school or daycare.
If you have a very young child then you can use ‘Google’ to learn about developmental stages and interact with your child at an appropriate level. Go to the library and take out a book on baby or toddler development. Contact your maternal and child health nurse. If you put your thinking cap on you will be able to devise safe activities for you to do with your very young child. For example, at around 12 months my daughter was fascinated with opening a box, putting something inside (like a small doll), closing the box, then repeating the action over and over. We would spend 20 minutes doing that same activity. I used an old shoebox and a little toy doll. Then we went outside an played with the letterbox, which had a little door (open, put flower in, close, open, take flower out, close). Mind numbing repition, but she was learning every single moment.
Focus on things within your control, let go of everything else
Let go of worrying about, and trying to control, every moment the other parent spends with the children. This was one of the hardest things I had to master as my ex-husband always had a very different idea of what constitutes a safe activity for children than I. Worrying about the kids whilst in his care was causing immeasurable stress for me not only while they were with him but also when I worried about their next visit with him. I had to decide to just stop. I focused on teaching them how to assess situations for safety without letting on that I worried about them in their father’s care, and how to assert themselves if they felt at risk. They’re still alive and well.
When the children are with the other parent please, PLEASE, refrain from texting the other parent or calling them unless there is a true emergency. Texting/calling to ask how things are going, to make sure the child had a nappy change and bath, ask how many grapes they’ve eaten or how many minutes they’ve had with technology is intrusive, offensive and inappropriate. You would hate to have the other parent doing that to you.
Remember, you are different from the other parent. You likely have different values and different beliefs about the ‘right way’ to raise the children. You can only control what goes on in your presence, under your roof. When the children are with the other parent you do not have a right to interfere so long as the kids are not in any physical or psychological danger. The Family Law Act provides a definition of family violence and specifies that certain people are required to report to children’s services if they suspect a child may be or is in serious danger. Serious danger does not cover things like eating ‘too much’ sugar, spending ‘too much’ time on technology, not getting ‘enough’ exercise, or not eating ‘enough’ vegetables.
Let go of the idea that you ‘own’ the children
This is related to the previous strategy. They go hand-in-hand.
For whatever reason (it’s too complex to explore here), some parents seem to feel that they own the children and have the sole right to dictate how and when the children spend time with the other parent. I hear these parents use language like, ‘I let the other parent have my children…’ or ‘My children may spend time with the other parent…’. Can you hear the possessiveness? Sometimes the other parent feels so disempowered that they use similar language (e.g., ‘the other parent won’t allow me…’). Hearing people use this language makes me feel sick. I feel for both parents and the children in these lose-lose situations. Long-term use of this type of language will impact negatively on the children, so it’s best to try to stop as soon as possible.
The Family Law Act assumes equal shared parental responsibility, and that children will spend equal time with each parent unless it is not practical (or safe) to do so. The court awards one parent sole responsibility only on very rare occasions. I’ve only heard of it once and the parent who lost responsibility (the mother) suffers from a very serious mental illness where she tends to lose touch with reality (the magpies give her directions). After reviewing the mother’s quite substantial medical records the children’s lawyer refused to agree to any orders that gave the mother any responsibility for the children.
I won’t deny it, if you are the parent who assumes you have ownership of the children and power over the other parent, letting go of this belief and behaviour can be extremely hard. It takes a lot of courage. I’ve been there and I still stumble.
You might honestly believe that you are protecting your children, you might be exercising power and control and it feels good, or you are doing it for some other reason. Unless your child is in serious danger (see above) then you are not protecting them, you are protecting some part of yourself and you are unreasonably denying your child their right to spend substantial and significant time with their other parent, to learn things from the other parent that you can’t teach them, to experience things with the other parent that you can’t or won’t provide. If you know you’re doing this and just find it too hard to stop please seek help. This belief system and the accompanying language feeds the conflict fire and can be damaging to the kids’ psychological wellbeing.