One word every divorced & separated
parent needs to stop using now
Christina McGhee is a coach with 20+ years of experience, offering short-term support for separating or divorced parents who are committed to getting it right for their kids. In this post, Christina talks about how to cope with divorce and maintain a family dynamic during and after the divorce process by avoiding the use of language and terminology that undermines the family unit.
This article originally appeared on Christina McGhee’s blog.
Ever have a word that makes you cringe every single time you hear it? Yeah, me too. (Actually, TBH, I have several but let’s not go there…)
Recently during one of my coaching calls a divorced parent I was working with casually dropped a little five-letter word that always stops me dead in my tracks.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a parent say it, and sadly, I know it won’t be the last. As a matter of fact, I see it used all over the internet and frequently notice other respected divorce professionals tossing it around too.
The thing is… whenever I hear it, I just can’t LET. IT. GO.
She was a divorced mom who had called me in a blind panic. Things had taken a turn for the worst since her kids had moved in with their father and she was desperate to get things back on track. Sadly Dad wasn’t helping the situation and had been bad-mouthing Mom at every turn.
As a result, her children were becoming more distant and starting to grumble about spending time with her. The really disturbing thing…just a few months ago everything had been fine between her and her kids.
As she laid out the details of her situation, that’s when this cringe-worthy five-letter beauty got blurted out.
The big offender you ask? V-I-S-I-T.
Let me explain…
Why you should stop using the word “visit” after your divorce.
At the start of the session, I asked Mom what things were like when the kids were with her. She replied with, “Well when the children “visit” me (cringe), they seem to be very detached. And now they’re saying they don’t want to come over for their “visitation weekends” (more cringing). I don’t know what to do.”
Now you might be saying to yourself, “Seriously Christina? What’s the big deal? It’s just a word. AND BTW… it sounds like these kids don’t live with Mom full-time. Why wouldn’t you call their time with her a visit?”
In my book, “visit” and “visitation” are not just words. They’re concepts. Concepts that do a huge disservice to children and parents AND completely undermine the value of family.
On the surface, it might seem pretty harmless. After all, what do you do when someone visits you?
Well…most of us set our sights on entertaining our guests and having a good time. If you’re a decent host, you probably also go out of your way to make your guests feel comfortable. We do all of this with the expectation that the time we have with our guests is TEMPORARY and PRECIOUS. So we pack it with fun and keep things light.
Sounds like a pretty good deal, right?
I mean what kid wouldn’t want to be entertained and have fun when they’re spending time with you? And on the flip side as a parent (who might not have a lot of time with your children) those days are precious. Why wouldn’t you do everything you could to make the time you have with your kids exciting and enjoyable?
Here’s the problem.
Children and parents are not visitors in each other’s lives, they are family.
A divorce ends a marriage, not a family. All those needs children have before the split, will still be there after parents part AND that includes feeling a sense of belonging and connectedness with each parent.
Regardless of how time is spent between the households, kids need to know that they still share a life with each of their parents and that they will continue to be a permanent fixture in their day-to-day lives.
As a divorce coach and parent educator with twenty some odd years under my belt, I’ve seen a lot of shifts in the culture of divorce. From sole custody to joint custody, shared parenting to co-parenting.
Through it all, I’ve been a relentless advocate of ditching outdated court-based language that diminishes the value of family. Terms like “visit,” “visitation” and “child custody” in my opinion are some of the worst offenders. And yet, they still get used all the time. Not just by lawyers and judges but also by parents and the professionals who are trying to help them.
In addition to not being “family friendly” terms, here are a couple of other unhealthy dynamics a “visitation” mindset contributes to:
It divides instead of unifies.
When words like “visit,” “visitation” and “custody” get thrown into the mix, parents stop being viewed as equals. One parent gets to become the “real” parent who provides a “primary” home for children, while the other parent becomes a “visitor” and gets to take a backseat in kid’s lives.
Those words however harmless they might seem also imply some pretty detrimental concepts. Like “better” parent vs. “not as good” parent, “important” vs. “not as important” or worse yet, “winner” vs. “loser.”
Not surprisingly, parents placed in the “visitor” role often feel diminished and removed from their children’s lives. Most “visitor” parents feel discouraged, frustrated and discounted. To level the playing field, parents who feel like “visitors” may focus more on being the “fun” parent who doesn’t implement rules, structure or consequences. Instead, they make the most of their “visiting” time.
When this happens, the tension between households ramps up pretty fast because the other parent gets saddled with always being the heavy. “Primary” parents, by default, become the ones who have to manage the bulk of child-rearing activities like enforcing rules, doing homework, setting consequences and tracking day-to-day life for kids. “Primary” parents often feel overwhelmed, resentful and unvalued.
As a result, frustration with one another ratchets up on both sides, and coparents end up feeling divided rather than unified.
It undermines a child’s sense of trust and belonging
As mentioned before, when children feel like “visitors” in a parent’s life, time with that parent becomes incredibly precious. Kids may view their relationship with the “visitor” parent as fragile and fleeting. For this reason, they may be very reluctant to rock the boat and become a “perfectly” behaved kid in that household.
In short, children don’t feel secure or have a sense of trust when a “visitation” mindset is in play. AND this creates a real problem for the “primary” parent who along with all the responsibility, may also get hit with all of the acting out.
As you can imagine (and may know all too well) more resentment and frustration between co-parents is not far behind. Let’s say little Sammy’s behavior is off the charts when he is with Mom, and she’s super concerned. However, when Sammy is at Dad’s house, he’s a perfect angel. When Mom tells Dad about the behavior issues, Dad thinks she’s making it all up. He replies with “There’s nothing wrong with Sammy. He’s just fine at my house. Maybe you just don’t know how to handle him.”
Perhaps you can relate?
However, it can also work the other direction too. Just like the Mom, I was coaching, when a parent goes along with a “visitor” mentality, kids can easily feel like outsiders looking in on a parent’s life. When this happens, children may start to detached or become more distant. From their point of view, “Why bother, I’m not really a part of this family anyway.”
Often when a parent remarries or re-partners these feelings can quickly escalate especially, if there are other children who live in the household full-time. AND If you have a coparent who is fueling the flames, it may not take much for them to exploit those feelings and influence kids to reject you.
So what can you do to turn things around?
4 SIMPLE STRATEGIES TO HELP CHILDREN FEEL A SENSE OF BELONGING AND CONNECTEDNESS
1. Change the way you talk.
Regardless of how much time you have with your kids, do yourself (and them) a favor by taking that five-letter word out of your vocabulary.Instead, talk about “time with Mom” and “time with Dad.” Versus referring to a “visitation” schedule, implement a “parenting” schedule. You can also use phrases like “your home with Mom” or “your home with Dad.”While it’s a subtle shift, it’s an important one to make.
2. Establish a two-home concept.
No matter how much time your kids spend under your roof, reassure your children that your home will always be a place they belong. Kids need to hear loud and clear that while their parent’s feelings for each other have changed, the love that’s shared between parents and children is forever.However, telling kids they belong isn’t enough, you also need to back up your words with action. Do your best to help children feel connected and valued in each home. If you can’t provide bedrooms in each household, make sure kids have an allocated space that is theirs (i.e., special area/furniture where they can keep their stuff) and sets of everyday items in both homes (i.e., pajamas, clothes, toiletries, toys, school supplies, etc.
3. Continue to act like a family.
Being a family involves more than just having a good time and doing fun stuff. When your children are with you, spend time doing homework, cook dinner together, have them help out around the house, sit and read a book, take them to special events like a friend’s birthday party or after-school activities.Along with that, be sure you do your best to provide children with structure and discipline. Kids who are able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, without consequence have a much harder time growing into happy, secure and successful people.If you have a co-parent who isn’t willing to support a two-home concept, do what you can to strengthen connection and a sense of belonging when your children are with you.You can also engage with your kids outside of the home by doing things like going to school to have lunch with them or showing up to after-school events like soccer games, school plays or awards ceremonies.For parents who have the role of “primary” parent, doing what you can to support a two-home concept on your end benefits you too.If you have a co-parent who isn’t stepping up, take a shot at engaging with them differently. Start by talking about “parenting time” instead of “visitation.” Invite the other parent to be involved in school activities or other kid-related events. Ask them to help with homework assignments and special projects. If your co-parent feels valued and acknowledged, they just might surprise you.
4. Maintain your connection when kids aren’t with you.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents complain about how their children don’t ever call or text them. Guess what? It’s not their job, it’s yours.Children need to be reassured that they matter to us and that divorce hasn’t changed that. One way to reinforce how important your children are to you is by initiating that contact on a consistent and regular basis when they’re not with you.Keep in mind, every text you send or call you make isn’t going to lead to a meaningful conversation. The goal is to let them know you’re thinking of them.Not only will consistent contact help your children feel more secure, but recent research also shows that kids who are able to maintain a close and connected relationship with each of their parents post-divorce are more well-adjusted than children who don’t. Believe it or not, sending texts, picking up the phone to call or video chat makes a big difference.
Bottom line, words have power. Don’t fall into the trap of letting outdated court-based language dictate what kind of relationship you have with your children.
When parents split up, families don’t end, they change, and it’s incredibly valuable for kids to hear that.
If you have any thoughts to share about the word visit, drop me a note below. I’d love to hear what you think.Do you have a client who needs some co-parenting support? Visit Christina’s profile.