Dear Dr. Greene, My wife and I are seeking visitations with my son who is five years old. We currently can see him for only nine hours a week. In the state of Ohio we must show that it is in the interest of the child to change the visitation schedule. His mother’s allegation is that we do not provide a safe environment. My son has never been hurt or injured in any way during the time that we have him. Yet, over the last five years we have documented reports and pictures of contusions; bruises on the face, back, arms and legs; three cases of impetigo; and numerous visits to the doctor for ear and sinus infections (his mother smokes). We have contacted the authorities, but they say that all this is normal. Now my son is showing aggression and an open curiosity about sex. Please help us!
Dr. Greene’s Answer:
In any divorce there are two hurting people. If there are children involved, that number is increased. No one in the now-broken family escapes without pain. Often children are stuck in the middle, and visitation rights can be hard.
I am very glad your son has never received any injuries while in your care; however, all of the things you have mentioned that have happened in his mother’s home are normal hazards of growing up. It is unhealthy for your child that his mother smokes, but there is no law that protects children from their parents’ secondhand cigarette smoke, nor do I think there should be such a law. I do feel strongly that parents who smoke should stop smoking for their own health and the health of their children. If they can’t stop, I feel they should take extreme measures to protect their children from smoke exposure. But even if they do not do these things, I still believe that it is more important for a child to be with his parent than to be in a smoke-free environment.
Having said that, I feel very strongly that it is in a child’s best interest to be with both parents, if possible, an equal amount of time. I am sorry that this is not your situation. I encourage you to work within the law to try to get as much time with your son as possible. In the short run, however, there are several things you can do to make the time you do have with your son very meaningful.
The first, and most important thing you can do, is to build your son to his mother. In any divorce situation children feel torn between their moms and dads. Any time you say something negative in front of your son about his mother, he feels stress. He loves his mother and he loves you. If he feels that you don’t approve of his mother, he will naturally hold back from you. He needs permission from you to love his mother with abandon. Only then will he feel comfortable loving you wholeheartedly.
Another important thing you can do is learn to listen to your son. If he feels you listen to him and understand what he is feeling, he will come to you with the really important things in his life, even if you only get to see him nine hours a week.
The next thing you can do is to make every visit with your son count. Here are some ways you can do that:
- Never, never skip a “date” with your son. If you do have to change the time or day for some valid reason, make sure you talk with your son about the change so he understands that you will be coming, just at a different time. Don’t rely on his mother to communicate this information to him — it might not be communicated in a positive way.
- Never be late for a “date” with your son. It is very important for you to act like he is a priority, not to just say that he is one.
- When you are with him, focus on his needs. If you had your son in your home half the time, I would not recommend this. In that situation it would be important for him to experience a “normal” family setting, but since you only have him for nine hours a week, it is appropriate for you to really pay attention to him during that time.
- Establish family rituals. He will remember the things you do over and over again and he will come to look forward to doing them with you. Simple things like cooking pancakes together, or going for a walk in a nearby park, or tossing a baseball can make lasting, positive impressions.
- Take lots of photographs of your times together. At least once a year go through all of the pictures and remember the good times you’ve had together.
- Video at least one event every month (more if you can). Make sure you and your wife are in the videos with your son. Then near his birthday, have a home movie night. Make popcorn and watch a whole year of family videos. Point out all the things your son has learned in the last year.
You can also get involved in your son’s school. Depending on how your visitation is set up and your work schedule, you may be able to volunteer in your son’s classroom one day each week. At the very least, you can attend all of the school functions that are aimed at parents. Be sure and communicate to your son’s teachers that you very much want to be involved in his life and are completely supportive of his school situation. Offer to help in any way that you can and let his teachers know that you absolutely want to be included in all parent functions. Prepare a stack of self-addressed, stamped envelopes for the teachers and ask them to mail you all parent notices. Let them know that you need to be notified of all upcoming functions so you can arrange your schedule to attend.
Holidays can be a very stressful time for everyone. It is only natural for both parents to want to be with their children on special days. Since you have limited time with your son, you and your wife will probably need to be the ones who are creative. Consider declaring June 25 as Christmas. Break out all the Christmas decorations, bake cookies, sing Christmas carols, have a big family meal, and exchange gifts on that day. You can even include your extended family in “your” Christmas. Or if your family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, select another holiday that is important to you and change the date to fit your visitation schedule. Sometimes these “declared” holidays can be even more meaningful than the nationally recognized versions.
Your situation is not an easy one. In the years to come, you will cry many tears over the times you miss with your son. But, even with your limited visitation privileges, you can build a relationship with your son that goes far beyond his school-age years. As a teen and an adult, when the court no longer mandates who he can spend time with, he can choose to spend time with you. In the long run, you will be glad that you went to the extreme effort it now takes to be a wonderful father.