At this time of year, and at other times just before holidays and vacation times, it is not unusual to have conflict between parents over visitation/access with the children. A variety of circumstances can lead to the problems:
- Sometimes the existing court orders are a little vague.
- Sometimes the parents have been doing things by agreement a certain way and one of the parents decides to change things.
- Sometimes there is a special event that comes up that doesn’t fit into the order or how the parents had been sharing.
- Sometimes one parent gets mad at the other and starts to use the kids as a weapon.
- Sometimes other family members interfere and create problems.
- Sometimes a work schedule or financial issues create a need to change visitation.
- Sometimes an outside opportunity comes up from school, church, friends, relatives, Scouts or other sources.
- And on and on. For any number of reasons, conflict can arise and really cause problems at holiday time.
What can be done? Here are some ideas.
1. Prevention is the best approach, if possible. Continually working and communicating with each other can help avoid major problems.
- Parents should talk early and often so they can avoid unpleasant surprises, hurt feelings and conflict. Discussing plans far in advance can help issues be resolved early or just not even become problems.
- Establishing a pattern and history of cooperation not only makes it easier to avoid conflict, but also makes it easier to deal with problems if they arise. If one parent has regularly shown a willingness to cooperate over a period of time, the other parent will probably be more willing to "give" somewhere in the future.
- Be nice. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- Be flexible. Most plans can be adjusted. In the long run, you’ll come out far ahead if you show flexibility and are able to change your plans sometimes. Keep in mind the big picture as far as what’s in your child’s best interest.
- Plan ahead. Try not to wait to the last minute to plan or implement changes in your child’s schedule. Plan ahead and share the details with the other parent.
- Listen and be respectful. If you immediately start talking or arguing, you may miss some information and may jump to erroneous conclusions. Listening, just by itself, can defuse tensions. Being courteous and respectful to the other parent may be difficult, but investing in that effort can be rewarding by leading to better communication and relationships.
2. What do you do if you’re already not on good terms? It is not unusual for two parents to not get along. Many people have difficulty getting over their divorce or other family conflicts. Parents who don’t like each other need to work harder to minimize the conflicts over their children. Here are some tips.
- Communicate early and clearly. Written notices are good and can help avoid misunderstandings. Direct discussions can also be helpful, if done properly.
- Don’t be accusatory or negative. Avoid using "always" and "never". Think before you speak and choose your words carefully. If you criticize the other parent, they will get defensive and less cooperative. Also, use "I" statements and avoid using "you" when you are speaking with the other parent.
- Listen and be respectful, even if you don’t like the other parent or they don’t like you. Being disrespectful will just make the situation worse. Hold your feelings until later.
- Be willing to compromise. Sometimes you can’t persuade the other parent and sometimes you don’t have any power or leverage in the situation. Keep your child’s best interest paramount and be willing to give up some power if it helps end conflict.
3. What if you are already on bad terms with the other parent? Again, there are several things you can do.
- Figure out early if you need help. That will give you more time to respond and to find some resolutions.
- Develop layers of responses which escalate in strength of response and the involvement of 3rd parties. For example, you can start off by contacting a mutually respected friend or family member to be an intermediary. The other parent may listen to such a person when he/she won’t listen to you. There might also be a couselor or child specialist who could get involved as a neutral person. A slightly higher step would be to meet with an Access Facilitator at the courthouse. If all of those don’t work, you probably need an attorney, but the courts fill up before holidays, so going to court is often a slow and unhelpful process. Sometimes, though, you don’t have any other alternatives.
- When you communicate with the other parent, give clear, non-argumentative messages. Don’t be insulting. Think about how you sound to the other parent.
- Be willing and open to compromise. Even if you are going to court, judges encourage settlement and you often can work out a better agreement than you could get in court. Be flexible.
Last-minute visitation issues are common around holiday times. Knowing that, maybe you can take evasive action to avoid serious collisions over the children.