Lesson 6 of 7 - learn to parent effectively

Options Toward Satisfying
Child Visitations

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/parent/divorce/visit.htm

Updated  04/27/2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-6 articles by a veteran family therapist on how to parent effectively. This article is for adults in divorcing families and stepfamilies and their supporters. The article...

  • identifies key factors that affect the quality of typical child visitations,

  • breaks a visitation into a sequence of processes,

  • illustrates common surface child-visitation problems. and,,,

  • provides links to related articles that can help solve core visitation problems.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6 (or 7 if you're a stepfamily)

  • how to manage a family during divorce;

  • how to analyze and resolve most relationship problems; and...

  • Typical minor kids' developmental and family-adjustment needs.

      This brief YouTube video by the author summarizes what typical kids in divorcing families need. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site. I've reduced that to seven .

      Roughly 70% of the millions of Americans who divorce have one or more biological children. Most people agree that minor kids need to spend "enough quality time" with each of their bioparents. That motivates most divorcing couples to evolve regular and special child visitation agreements between their custodial and non-custodial homes. These may be part of an informal or legal parenting agreement.

      Typical divorcing parents have to juggle many dynamic factors to negotiate regular and special visitations that satisfy everyone. Kids, relatives and supporters have their own visitation opinions and needs, increasing the chance for family conflict.

      Divorcing parents often have a hard time separating their relationship, financial, and parenting problems. They choose - or are forced by family court - to use professional mediators to negotiate compromises on simultaneous conflicts. This usually indicates the parents have inherited lethal [psychological wounds + unawareness].

       Let's start by examining...

  What's an Effective Child Visitation?

      Do you know a divorcing biofamily or a stepfamily in which child visitations are deemed "good enough" by all involved people? Do you know another family where someone feels visitations are stressful, troublesome, and conflictual? What makes the difference?

      I propose that an effective child visitation is one which all involved kids and adults thoughtfully agree afterward...
  • that everyone's major primary (vs. surface) needs were satisfied well enough...

  • in a way that left each person feeling respected enough by themselves and all others involved.

      Filling everyone's primary needs is the heart of satisfying visitations. These needs include acceptance, affirmation, validation, respect, stimulation, security, and affection. A common surface need is "Have a nice time.

      People who learned to be shamed and emotionally numb (wounded) as kids have a hard time...

  • recognizing their primary needs,

  • being clear on their personal rights

  • validating and asserting their needs and boundaries,

  • empathizing with others' needs, and...

  • discerning whether their own needs got met well enough.

      When psychologically-wounded people are asked "How was your visitation?" they may not know. They answer what they think is expected ("Oh, fine.") or they complain about surface needs that weren't met (frustrations or problems).

      How does the definition above compare to your idea of "an effective visitation"? If your family adults haven't discussed and agreed on a common definition, doing so now is one way to start building visitation harmony. Notice your self talk now.

      Another way is to become aware of...

Key Child-visitation Variables

      Let's define "regular visitation" as a multi-home process shaped by a mix of dynamic variables like these:

1) the degree of psychological wounds and unawareness of key family adults and advisors (low to high)

2)  the multi-home family's structure (stable or not). Family structure includes

  • who's included in - and excluded from - the family,

  • the roles of each adult and child (who's responsible for what), and...

  • the related sets of household rules (shoulds, oughts, musts, and have to's) that shape how each role is acted out ("You have to see that Jackie wears her dental retainer every night"), and...

  • who usually makes family rules and decisions in and between both homes, and...

  • the non-visitation responsibilities, schedules, and obligations of each child and adult in each home;

3) _  the current primary pre-visitation needs in each person involved, and _ how the people's needs are prioritized by family decision-makers; 

4the values and attitudes held by parents and other key family members and supporters; (healthy and compatible to toxic and conflictual);

5)  family adults' ability to think, communicate, and problem-solve effectively in general and in child-raising disputes (consistently ineffective to consistently effective);

      More child-visitation variables...

6)  the degree of divorce-recovery in each child and adult affected by visitations (incomplete to complete). This includes the status of significant parental and child guilts (unresolved to resolved);

7)  minor kids' ages, genders, and degree of bonding with, and allegiance to, each bioparent and each other (weak to strong)

8)  the degree of influence on each bioparent or caregiver by their parents, relatives, and outsiders (low to high);

9)  the geographic distance between parental homes and the time and expense to transport each child to and from one to the other;

10)  the status (evolving > stable and cooperative > conflictual) and effectiveness (low to high) of parental agreements on child custody + visitations + financial support + responsibilities)

      Each of these ten elements can promote or hinder the quality of routine and special child visitations. Use this summary to help identify any problems your family is having. Use this to help solve them.

      Another concept divorcing-family and stepfamily members and professionals need to be aware of is...

The Visitation Cycle

      Every child visitation is a sequence of processes or rituals. Depending on the factors above, each process can cause stress in and/or between the sending and receiving homes:

  • the planning process in and between homes;

  • the preparation process - e.g. packing, cleaning, meal-planning, instructing) in each home;

  • the "goodbye" process at the child's first home;

  • transporting the child to the receiving home;

  • the "welcoming" ritual at that home;

  • the simultaneous adjustment processes in both homes;

  • the planned and spontaneous activities that occur between the "hellos" and preparing to return, including any conflicts and inter-home communications;

  • the preparations in both homes for the child to return;

  • the "goodbye" process at the visited home;

  • traveling back to the original home;

  • the "hello" process upon arrival, including debriefing ("How was it? How are you?");

  • the re-adjusting in both homes, and adults and kids evaluating privately and together whether it was "a good visitation" or not; and finally...

  • any inter-home and other communication needed to "finish" the visitation ("Jack, Marcy left her tennis shoes and wallet at your house. Can you..."). This can also include a web of conversations and reactions with peers and relatives about visitation events and reactions.

      Each of these elements can cause situational or chronic stress for members in one or both homes. These elements are typically more complex and potentially more stressful in average stepfamily homes.

      Newly-separated families have to invent and stabilize their version of this whole sequence over many months amidst many other personal and family dynamics. Their cycle must shift and restabilize each time (a) someone moves in or out of each house, and (b) any member of either house has a "significant" lifestyle change (like starting or graduating from school, re/marriage, cohabiting, custody change, illness or disability, childbirth, job loss, etc...)

      Even if all concerned people achieve "OK stability" in both homes, their basic visitation cycle can have special variations - like "six-week summer vacation," and "year-end school-break visitations." Thus regular visitations may be "OK," but special visitations aren't, or vice versa, according to someone. Cycles involving family birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events usually generate unique primary needs in members of both homes.

      Recap: "child visitation" is a multi-phase process that temporarily changes the structure and dynamics of both homes. Now let's use that to explore...

What's the (Surface) Problem?

      As a family-systems therapist, I've listened to hundreds of divorcing and stepfamily adults and kids describe their child-visitation conflicts. They have been mixes of the complaints below. See if some of these are familiar...

"My ex mate won't cooperate / listen to reason / give in or compromise / empathize with our child's needs / apologize / respect my needs / keep me informed / set healthy boundaries and limits / provide reasonable consequences / provide consistent, appropriate caregiving / follow the legal parenting agreement  / obey the legal Order of Protection / stop badmouthing me / stop harassing me / get appropriate medical or emotional help / problem-solve / protect our child from ______ / stop using chemicals / drive safely / keep his/her promises / be on time / stop using the kids as spies / appreciate my sacrifices and com-promises /..." 

Implication: "Our visitation problems are my ex mate's fault, and I'm helpless, or forced to confront him/her. Or visitations are "a problem" because...

"My child doesn't like...

  • going to their (other parent's) home

  • spending time with (their other parent), / their stepparent; / the other child(ren) in that home;

  • all the complicated planning, arguing, lecturing, packing, and traveling;

  • the rules in that house / adapting to a very different set of house rules than ours

  • leaving their pet and/or friends

  • not having their own room over there / not having enough privacy

  • being left with a sitter over there

  • never doing fun stuff - being bored

  • feeling ignored, used, sad, and/or quizzed feeling stuck in the middle of loyalty and values conflicts, and/or stressful relationship triangles  

Implication: "The people in the other house do things that make visitations painful, scary, unpleasant, or boring too often for my child(ren). It's their fault, and I'm helpless, or forced to confront them."

      Or visitations are stressful because...

"My (stepparent) mate says I'm being walked on by my ex / not protecting my child from my ex / giving too much time and energy to visitation issues / worrying more about my child(ren) than hers (his) / making too big a deal out of visitations / overreacting / too sensitive / too aggressive / too passive / too cooperative / still attracted to my ex / attached to my child at the hip / letting guilt run my life / overprotective / ignoring (my mate) when my child visits / ignoring my child when s/he visits / 'unnaturally close' to my child / inconsiderate  /..." 

Implication - visitations are "no fun" because my partner criticizes me for my values and/or behavior, rather than filling my needs for empathy and encouragement.

      And people say visitations are a pain because...

Step/siblings - fight / whine / complain / are too noisy / don't like each other / won't obey house rules / are too picky about food / gang up on each other / ignore each other / compete with each other / stay up too late / trash the house / are rude and disrespectful /..."

Implication - one or more kids 'cause our visitation problems; or...

Relatives - my [mother / father / mother in law / father in law / ex mother in law / ex father in law / (or other relative)] criticizes [me / my child(ren) / my present partner / my ex mate  / all of us] for [some visitation choices and behaviors] without  [understanding / listening / being asked for their opinion / empathizing / knowing the details / caring what I need or feel /...]

Implication - it's my relatives' fault that visitations are stressful.

      A final group of surface visitation problems sounds like...

The lawyer(s) / judge / legal system / mediator - made this ridiculous schedule / is completely unreasonable / is totally biased / made us use this expensive psychological expert who said...  / forced us to see this counselor, who said .. / cost us thousands of dollars we don't have, to get (no solutions) / threatened me with... / won't stand up to my ex about... "

Implication - Our visitation problems are caused by the legal system, not by us or me!  

      Did you see elements of your situation here? The average visitation conflict is a mosaic of these, with adults and kids in each home having different perceptions, priorities, and different sets of criticisms and complaints. I propose that none of these is the real problem!

      What do you notice about these reasons individually and all together? What I notice is the adults who cite these complaints...

  • are critical of, and frustrated with one or more other people, and they...

  • deny, minimize, or justify their part in what causes their "visitation problems."

What's the Real Problem With Visitations?

      I propose that "problems" are unfilled needs, and that human needs range between surface (superficial) and primary. Most people are unaware of this, and waste time and energy focusing on surface problems like those above. From 36 years' clinical study and experience, I conclude that these are the primary problems causing all divorce-related parenting problems,

      I have never met one person or couple that could describe these primary problems accurately or what to do about them. Is that true of you?

 Options for Better Visitations 

      If you want to permanently end or avoid major family conflicts over child custody, visitations, financial support, holidays, vacations, loyalties, and other things, ask all your family adults (not just parents) and supporters to (a) read and discuss this article, and then (b) commit to working at these concurrent options. If they won't, see this and this.

  • if you have conflicts over child custody and/or financial child support, separate them from visitation conflicts.

  • use the process-outline above to pinpoint _ what part/s of the visitation cycle is problematic, and _ to whom

  • If part of the problem is a hostile or combative relationship between divorcing parents or other family adults, see these:

    ^  perspective on managing a divorcing family 

    *  How to analyze and resolve relationship problems

    Q&A on, and options for improving, ex-mate relations

    *  Options for maintaining an effective parenting agreement

    Options for relating to a psychologically-wounded person

    *  If ex-mate hostility is extreme, see this.

  • If part of the problem is ineffective communication, see these:

*  improve communication among adults and with kids

options for responding well to irritating behaviors

  •  If part of the problem is "a difficult child," see these

developmental and special needs of typical children of divorce

*  options for relating with a "problem child"

*  guidelines for effective child  discipline

  • See if incomplete grief may be contributing to the problem,

  • Avoid using uninformed legal help to resolve visitation problems,

  • Make sure all adults and older kids know1 how to spot and resolve these three common stressors

  • If you're in a stepfaily, all adults - including grandparents - study and discuss online lesson 7 in this Web site.

      If the ideas in these articles don't improve the quality of child visitations between your homes over time, review this article and get help from a veteran family-systems therapist.


      This article is part of Break-the-Cycle! Lesson 6 - learn how to parent (nurture) effectively. It focuses on a common parenting problem during and after divorce (and re/marriage): negotiating satisfying child visitations. The article...

  • identifies key factors that affect the quality of typical child visitations,

  • breaks a visitation into a sequence of processes,

  • illustrates common surface visitation problems. and,,,

  • provides links to a related articles that can help solve core visitation problems.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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