Joint Custody: Should I force my kids to go with their other parent even when they are crying and screaming?

Q: I'm a stepmom of two wonderful kids, age 9 and 12. Their mom has "episodes" because of her bipolar condition. She will yell and scream at them, and say ugly things about their Dad and me and other family members. When the episodes are over, she is a very loving person and just does not understand why the kids cannot or will not just forget what has happened. The kids are both at a point that they are afraid to go with her for her visits.

We do understand that she has the right to see the kids, but we are very worried about their emotional state if we physically force them. How far do we go without jeopardizing our own relationship with them because we are forcing them to see her? How physical do you suggest we get with the kids? Should we pick them up and force them into her car? She has already called the police when they would not get in immediately.

We are talking and trying to assure them that they are strong kids and they can handle anything with their mom, and that in time it will be better… but of course we don't know that for sure, and I don't want the kids to think that we are lying to them.

- concerned stepmom

A: First and foremost, let me compliment you on your compassionate insight into the situation. Your kids are very blessed that you understand their desires, their confusion, and their experience. Please don't ever underestimate the power of just one adult in their world who can validate and understand what they are going through.

This is a very challenging situation for all of you. It hurts to see a child in distress, whether it's physical or emotional pain. As parents, our instinct is to protect our children, and we can become painfully overwhelmed with guilt when we feel unable to do so, even if we are only stifling our protective impulse in order to comply with a judge's order. It's a terrible double bind.

I suggest you check with your attorney regarding the impact that her bipolar disorder is having on the children. You might also ask about your legal obligation when the kids simply refuse to set foot in her car. There may be some clear directives, and you will want to make sure not to violate them.

Personally, it would be very hard for me to force them physically, and at their ages I don't think it needs to come to that. They are certainly old enough to collaborate on solutions to this problem with you.

Let's assume that they must continue to see her, and you have found out what your legal obligations are and are honoring them. The kids will have a lot of feelings to unload. A LOT. Think of this as somewhat similar to a visit to the ER for stitches. Kids are often afraid to go because they know it will hurt. (And they are right!) And parents know that taking care of their children's health is simply not optional.

So we listen compassionately to their protests. We tell them we wish there was another way. We let them scream and rant and rave. And we take them to the doctor anyway, because we know that not going will cause long term problems.

We endure their panicked and noisy protests in the short term for what we believe to be their long term benefit. Sometimes when it's all over, we take them out for ice cream for being so brave, even though we both know they had no real choice.

If the kids are legally required to see their mother, then it's not optional. For now anyway, unless your attorney can get this revised. So I'd sit down with them and lay it all out. "Okay, you guys, we have looked into every possible way to get you out of this, and for now, there just isn't one. So you have to go with her."

Then let them vent. They need to release the frustration and powerlessness they feel. That's the best way for you to support their resilience, and strengthen their relationship with you. Yes, they are strong, but that's not what they want to hear right away. They want to hear acknowledgment about how much they don't want to go, how they hate being stuck, how much they wish it was different.

Simply reflect their feelings. Don't rush in with reassurances. I love that you are sensitive to the fact that the reassurance might be false in the end, and reluctant to make empty promises. So just stay with, "I hear you. You REALLY REALLY don't want to go. You REALLY wish you had a choice about it." etc. Keep reflecting that way as long as they are expressing feelings. Eventually, they will run out of angry steam.

At that point, you can say things like, Let's talk about how we can get this transition over with as quickly and painlessly as possible for you. What helps?

Do you want us to pick you up and put you in her car? I hate the thought of doing that, but I understand if you just feel like you simply cannot willingly walk into her car, and I will help you in any way I can, even if it means carrying you. I must admit, though, that I am hoping we can figure out a way that works for you to climb in there by yourself.

So how can we make going with her easier for you? Is there something special we can do to celebrate your return so you have something to look forward to?

Would a cell phone help, so you can text us when you need to vent? Or an iPod or books on CD so you have a distraction?

Let's put our heads together on this. We can't change whether you go or not, but let's work with the things we can change.

Get out some paper and brainstorm together. Accept all ideas, even wacky ones. In fact, it's great to suggest some wacky ones yourself, because humor is a fantastic stress reliever and bonding experience to share. Write every idea down, then go back through to figure out what is reasonable to experiment with.

You are right, of course, that the kids are incredibly strong. But it might be better not to say so right now. Instead, just hold that vision of them inside your own mind and heart. Treat them as though they are strong and smart and resilient, but don't ask them to feel that way or agree with your assessment. In their minds, if they were indeed as strong as they wanted to be, they could make this situation stop. They need lots of empathy and understanding for how weak they feel. Strong is just too big of a leap for them to hear out loud.

For now, they need understanding far more than they need reassurance. Empathy, not solutions, as I said in another post. Don't underestimate the power of empathy. It's tremendous. It changes things, even when there's nothing we can do the change their physical situation.

You might find some help in the other posts in the divorce/joint custody category on my blog. There's lots of stuff there. Also check out the crying category.

I do hope this helps. Hang in there, and please find some support from your friends and family to release your feelings safely and keep yourself clear and strong. You are doing a great job, and your presence, love, and attention are tremendously helpful to your children.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

1 comment:

Ingrid Johnson said...

Thanks, Karen.

Insightful and loaded with wisdom - valuable stuff!