Q: My ex tells me that he does not have to tell me where he lives and that what he does during his time with our girls is none of my business. The girls come home afraid to tell me anything about when they are with their dad. They say that Daddy tells them if they say anything to me, they will get in trouble. Now they don’t want to go see their dad and he thinks it’s me. If I don’t send them, he threatens to call the police. I don’t know what to do. What’s good Ex-Etiquette?
Answer: This is so far past an Ex-Etiquette concern, it’s difficult to know where to start. Ex-Etiquette, in concept, is simply what is or is not good behavior after a break-up. It’s designed to help everyone — friends, family or the people breaking up — navigate this emotionally turbulent time. Your question implies something far more serious.
To put children so far in the middle of their parents that the kids are afraid to discuss what they did with the other parent is emotionally detrimental to the child. Children never should be afraid to talk to either parent about time away. If they are, it’s a big red flag that there is something wrong. One of the first things abusers do to their victims is threaten that something will happen if they say anything about the abuse.
Unfortunately, some parents don’t understand what they do to their kids when they put them in this position. They don’t see it as “abuse,” they think: “We’ve broken up — my ex doesn’t need to know anything about me or what I do with the kids on my time. It’s none of his/her business.”
On the contrary. You are not obliged to talk about your love life once you break up, but nothing much changes with regard to your responsibility as a parent. You still should consult each other about the children’s schedules. You still should cooperate with each other in the best interests of the children. You still are obliged to tell the other parent your address, where the children sleep when they are with you. And you should allow the children to speak to the other parent when they are away. That doesn’t change because of a break-up. That’s basic parenting 101.
I’m not surprised the kids are balking at visiting Dad if he really is telling them that they will get in trouble if they talk about their time with him. I’ve heard parents go as far as telling the kids that they (the parent) will get in trouble if the kids say anything! Both tactics are equally abusive. You are essentially holding your children hostage, threatening them that something bad will happen to them or the other parent if they feel comfortable in both homes.
No one wins in this sort of situation. Just know the kids will naturally gravitate to the parent who is easiest to be around, who lets them be themselves, the one in whom they can confide and with whom they feel safe. If that’s not you, then don’t be surprised when they make excuses not to return. This does not mean bribe the kids to like you best. It means do your best to support each other’s parenting time for the sake of the children and hope that they love and feel comfortable with in both homes. That’s good Ex-Etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.