Handling summer visitation

100_2085Kristen Jenson, author of Good Pictures Bad Pictures asked me to write a guest post for her site about co-parenting and summer visitation for her site, Protect Young Minds. Here’s a preview. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago as I was sitting in my attorney’s office, a colorful pamphlet caught my eye. Underneath the block-letter title (something about co-parenting), was a message to this effect: “If you think divorce will fix all your problems, think again. Legally married or not, you are still ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’ and nothing can change that.” I’m a co-parent myself, and reflect on this fact often. I’m also far enough into this thing to know that the pamphlet is right.

For every co-parent, located somewhere in the reams of legal documents is some sort of visitation schedule for the kiddos. And on paper, it might sound great. But when the rubber hits the road, things can get a little tricky. Let’s be honest, visitation often involves sending your babes back to a place you’ve intentionally removed them from—without you.

Just in case things aren’t complicated enough, let’s throw in an addiction. It doesn’t matter what kind of addiction: drugs, alcohol, sex, or pornography. Under the best of circumstances, sending children away from their home and normal routine is going to cause at least a little stress, but now suppose you’re sending them to a place where the values and environment are drastically different than your own. How do you do it?

Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks. I’ve also talked to dozens of co-parents who have been (or still are) in a similar situation. As I’ve soaked up their wisdom, I’ve been able to calm down a little regarding my boys’ 6-week summer visitation, along with their other, shorter ones. If I’ve taken away one thing from everyone I’ve talked to, it’s this: Chill out. We will all make it through this. And there’s no use worrying about things we can’t control.

At this point, I could probably write a book about how to handle summer visitation. But at the same time I’m not perfect, and I’m still learning. For now I’m just going to give you the highlights:

Communicate with your ex. If you’re recently divorced, your relationship with your ex might be a little rocky. Maybe not. Some couples are able to heal and move on, which is awesome! But often healing takes time and patience. In the meantime, it’s important to put things aside and try to communicate clearly and peaceably when it comes to visits—especially long ones. My ex and I aren’t exactly best pals, but he is really good at this. Before my kids go out for the summer, he asks lots of questions about rules, routines, food preferences, sleep schedules, clothing sizes, etc., and I do my best to answer all of them.

I also try to anticipate things my ex-husband might need to know and send the info before the boys arrive. This was not easy at first. In the beginning, we were not on the best of terms, and our emails and face-to-face interactions were a bit awkward and heated at times. But it has gotten easier with practice. Probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard regarding co-parenting is to treat it like a business deal. Efficient. Just the facts. Leave emotion out of it. Because at the end of the day, it’s not really about you and your ex—it’s about the kids. If you are both able to let go and let them be the focus, things will go a lot more smoothly.

Communicate with your kids. When it comes to children, open communication is key. But when they are being raised by two different households, it’s invaluable. Obviously, when the children are away visiting the other parent, it can be more challenging to communicate with them. So, it is important to build good communication long before visits with the ex ever become an issue.

If you build good communication habits and patterns as part of your daily rituals, then they will happen naturally even during the most stressful times, like during and after the summer visit. I’ve found that the best times to get my boys to talk are in the car, in the bath (when they were little, of course), and before bed. These instances work best because … well … there’s no where else to go.

So next time you’re driving somewhere with your kiddo, try flipping off the radio and listening to what they have to say. Or if they want to stall and chat as you’re tucking them in, indulge them once in a while. It’s amazing how detailed my son’s stories become when he’s talking to me after his bedtime. Gone are the “yes” or “no” answers. Suddenly, he has all sorts of things to talk to about!

Also, if you make it a habit of having long, open discussions about everything under the sun, it’s not likely to feel forced when you bring up sticky topics like addiction, pornography, or dangerous substances like drugs and alcohol. At least that’s my experience.

Be consistent. I don’t know about your kids, but mine like predictability. They find security in knowing the order of things: when we will sleep, what we will eat, where we are going and when. When they bounce between homes, consistency regarding things like these goes a long way toward settling their nerves. So, set some rules and routines and stick with them. And when they leave your house, do your best with your ex to strategize ways to keep them in place—within reason, of course. (This is where that awesome communication we talked about comes into play.)

If your divorce involved addiction or pornography, consistency is all that more important. Although you and your ex might have different values systems, it is important to agree on some rules and boundaries for the children and then enforce them in both places. For instance, on the computer you might set time limits or restrict them to specific kid-safe websites to prevent mindless surfing. Tell your ex about limits like these, and make sure they are in place no matter who has the kids. Have patience with your ex. Over the years, you will find your rhythm.

Be positive. If someone had told me this during my kids’ first summer visitation, I probably would have punched them in the face! But hear me out.

Children are like little mirrors. If you are a parent, you know this. We’re not perfect, and most of us have had the unfortunate circumstance of saying something dumb and then hearing a mini-me scream it in our face weeks later. Our emotions are the same way.

Often, in times of stress, your children will watch your reaction before they decide how they feel about things. For instance, I once read about two groups of mothers watching their children ice skate. In the first group, when a child fell down, the moms would smile, clap, cheer and say things like, “Boing! That was a good one! Shake it off, honey. You can do it!” In this case, the boys and girls reflected the mothers’ tones, laughing, smiling, and trying again. In the second group, each time a child would fall, the mothers would immediately show great alarm, yelling with fright and running to the child’s side. These children also reflected their mothers’ attitudes, crying longer and harder, making a huge show, and taking longer to get back on their feet.

I have found the ice-skating lesson very applicable as I send my children across the country each summer. They watch me. I know they do. And just like the ice-skating children, they take their cues from me. If I cry and bawl and act worried or even angry about them leaving, chances are they will be stressed out. (In fact, I recently talked to a peer who said as much about her experiences with her own divorced parents growing up.) On the other hand, if I dwell on the positive, telling the children about the fun they’ll have, how so many people love them in both places, and that I’ll see them soon, they are more likely to be relaxed about the situation.

When addiction and/or pornography are involved, I realize this is harder than it sounds. You genuinely might believe that you are sending them into harm’s way. And maybe you are. But chances are there is nothing you can do about it. You are going to have to send them regardless of how you feel. So, why not soften the blow for them? I have found that it is possible to teach my children to be cautious and safe without scaring them to death. It’s a fine balance, but it can be done.

I also want to be clear that I’m not telling parents not to feel. It is okay to be scared. It is okay to cry. Just wait until they are gone to do it. I have had many a meltdown on the drive home after dropping my little angels at the airport.

Have a plan. Much of the advice I’ve given so far can apply to any co-parent. But just for a moment, I want to focus specifically on parents who are afraid their kids might bump into porn at the ex’s house. It’s a legitimate fear, especially if you know pornography was present in the home when you all lived together. But isn’t it ALWAYS a risk that your kids will bump into porn?

You might feel like your house is a fortress and your kiddo will never come upon pornography on your watch. But don’t kid yourself. Nowadays, pornography is everywhere. Kids can access it on their phones, on any computer (filtered or not), on TV, in books and magazines, on billboards, and a whole host of other places. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that at this point, it’s not a matter of IF they see porn, it’s a matter of WHEN. So what are we going to do about it? I’ll tell you.

The best way to protect kids from porn is not installing computer filters (although it’s not a bad idea), it is helping them create an internal filter. If we can program our kids—rather than just our computers—to reject inappropriate material, it will be worth a million technological filters. Why? Because no matter where they are or who they are with, they will take that internal filter with them.

In their book, Good Pictures Bad Pictures, authors Kristen A. Jenson and Dr. Gail Poyner, set up a practical step-by-step process to help children do this very thing. I read this book to my boys and it was so helpful! It explained to them, in a kid-friendly way, how they have two brains (the feeling brain and the thinking brain) and how important it is to keep the thinking brain strong and in charge. Then I taught them the CAN DO Plan that’s in Chapter 8 and had my boys hold up one hand to remember these five letters: C-A-N D-O.

When I come across pornography, what do I do?

C – CLOSE my eyes

A – ALERT a trusted adult

N – NAME it when I see it (“That’s pornography!”)

D – DISTRACT myself

O – ORDER my thinking brain to be the boss! (as opposed to the ‘feeling brain’)

I love this plan because it is quick, effective, and easy to remember. Good Pictures Bad Pictures goes into a lot more detail about the brain science behind addiction and thoroughly describes each of the five points, which are important for kids to understand before the CAN DO plan can be completely effective.

Protect Young Minds is currently offering for a limited time a small downloadable (8 1/2” x 11”) poster when you subscribe to the blog that puts the letters of the acronym, their definitions, and illustrations of each point in a colorful, easy-to-read format. My advice? Grab one, frame it, and stick it next to your computer. Practice with your children at home. Then grab a second poster, mail it to your ex, and ask them to do the same. It’s all about consistency, remember? Imagine the comfort your little smarties will feel seeing a familiar poster on the desk next to the computer, no matter whose house it is.

In addition, if you teach your children to associate the pattern with five fingers, they will have a reference with them at all times—on the playground, on the bus, at your house, at your ex’s, or at a friend’s house. How cool is that! Have faith in your child. He/she CAN DO it!

I realize everyone’s circumstances and personalities are different, so some of these suggestions might not resonate with every person. That’s okay. As they say in the 12 steps, take what you want and leave the rest.

Summers will come and go, and so will the visits. At times life might feel totally out of control. What’s important is to focus on the things that we can control. So communicate, be consistent, smile, and have a plan. Let your kids know that you love them and believe in them. And don’t be afraid to cry your eyes out … after you’ve closed the door behind them.

NOTE TO MAMAS: This article addresses summer visitation purely from a co-parenting standpoint. For suggestions on dealing with the emotional side, I have written a separate article, For the Lonely Mothers in the Summertime. Happy summer, everyone!

CHALLENGE: Find at least one thing (communication, consistency, attitude, or planning) that’s pertinent to your situation and try it out. Have an open mind. See how it goes.

QUESTION: Are you a co-parent, too? If so, what are some things you’ve learned to help your kids handle summer visitation?

Melody Harrison Bergman is a happily-remarried mama of two crazy little boys and an awesome step-son. She enjoys hanging out with her family, playing and teaching piano, singing, taking long walks in the rain, and advocating for her favorite cause—ending sexual exploitation. Currently, she is an administrator on three related websites on the subject: MamaCrossroads, her personal blog; Hope & Healing, a faith-based blog and private forum for more than 800 wives of porn addicts; and the website for the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation, based in Washington, D.C.

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