Sometimes for a variety of reasons one parent doesn’t see their child for an extended period of time after a separation and this can be a tough situation for that parent and for the child. The temptation is to want to pick up the relationship where you left it but your child may not feel comfortable with this. So I’m really pleased to introduce this guest blog by Mette Theilmann. Mette is an experienced and qualified parent & family life coach, author and parenting blogger.

Mette writes:

Connecting with your child after a long separation

Divorce is always a tough time for your family, but when your child has been alienated from you for a long period of time it brings parenting to a whole new level, often leaving you worried and confused about how to restore the connection and relationship.

If you are relating to this, then you have likely been separated from your child due to divorce and have possibly also been fighting hard to have regular contact with them again. A lot of your energy, time and probably money has been focused on this one thing: contact with your child, but now the most important work begins, to re-establish the connection and restore the relationship and trust.

Let’s start by saying that this is going to be hard for your child too. It’s possible they feel shame and guilt about the way they have been treating you and will find it harder to be with you for a while. They are sad too. A child always wants their parents so this separation has been tough for them, often they suffer inside but usually don’t know how to say it or show it in a constructive way. They could be distant, angry or silent. So take things slow and show massive amounts of understanding and patience. 

Go slow and micro dose everything

  • Have time together that is short and simple, with no set expectations: they need time to get used to the new situation so try to set short periods of time aside every day for them when you are together. Maybe just 10 minutes at a time. But a time when you are 100% there, present, and focused – no mobile or chores – just you and your child. It doesn’t have to be much, it can be just being in the same room breathing the same air. Just BE and BREATHE. Try not to ask lots of questions as this puts pressure on the child to come up with a right or wrong answer. If they want to talk, great, just listen and be there.
  • Words: less is more. Try not to bombard your child with a ton of questions, long explanations or answers. Make your conversation clear and short so they have less to digest and process. If you are upset, use as few words as possible.
  • Expectations: for now, focus on your connection and don’t worry too much about chores and behaviours. You can ask if they want to cook with you, you can tell them that you would like them to speak nicely to you etc. but for now, don’t make a big deal out of it – choose your battles.  
  • Listen. Even if you don’t like or agree with what you hear: your child may say (or scream) things at you that you are not going to like. It will make you sad, mad, confused and disappointed. They don’t mean it. They too are confused about how they feel and how to deal with this new situation. So, for now, just listen to what they say. You can come from a place of ‘I listen, I understand, and I accept’ – I can hear that you are really sad because XX and I understand that this is really hard for you and that it is ok to be sad.. Then you can reply and try to decode / translate what they might be trying to say to you: so that ‘I HATE YOU’, becomes, ‘I can hear that you are angry right now because you miss daddy/mummy, and I get it, that is normal’.
  • Dealing with backtalk, aggression and angry words directed at you:  your child will test your boundaries and provoke emotions that you didn’t even know you had! They are adjusting to a new situation and might not know how to behave towards you and that can often come out in a negative way. They might also be testing you to make sure that you are ‘safe company’. So it’s important to have some tools to help you deal with this situation. The main tip is that before you do or say anything STOP and check in with yourself and how you feel. Accept how you feel but remind yourself that you don’t want these deep emotions to high jack how you deal with the situation. After that you can make a decision of your actions:  what you will say or NOT say, sometimes saying nothing is the best respond. Maybe you want to be curious to WHY your child is so mad at you: do they feel let down, confused, sad etc.
  • Dealing with a quiet and withdrawn child: your child’s reaction to the new setup might also come the opposite way which can be just as hard. When your child is withdrawn you need to go VERY slowly.  Try to just be happy about being in the same space breathing the same air. Make your connection without pressure and expectations, just BE and BREATHE together. You can sit with them when they are doing something (drawing, gaming, playing etc.), just sit down quietly and show that you enjoy being next to them, no more. If you like you can use something called ‘descriptive commenting’ instead of bombarding them with questions. Here you simply just comment on what you see, hear, sense, and feel: You are sitting so quietly playing with your Lego building that tall tower. I can see you are really concentrating. Wow the colours on the video games are so real. I can see you’re colouring the elephant pink, that is very creative etc. Just comment. This sends a signal that you are present, connected and observant. But puts no pressure on them to answer any questions or offer you a part in what they are doing, if they like they will ask you. Over time they will feel safe with you and start interacting.

Establish your new normality, your new home

At some point you need to get some reality into your home. You have now worked on the foundation of a healthy connection and relationship. You now need to add the next bit that makes you a real family. You need to add some expectations. They need to feel that they are part of this new home, yours and your child’s home. That they are needed and that their skills and abilities are valued. They might not say it, but rules, routines and responsibilities (chores) make your child feel safe and give them confidence. They send a signal that this is a home based on teamwork and cooperation. This is where a deep connection and RESPECT is created.

But you will find it hard. Most likely they will use the other parent as a way to get out of doing chores or getting what they want. That is OK. This is what they are supposed to do, they are like small scientists!  Always experimenting to create a way out of things they don’t want to do.  This is their job as well, as it is our job to be firm and fair. Keep in mind that children CAN deal with two sets of parenting styles and that most likely they are also doing the same to the other parent. 

Tips to support them in establishing a ‘new normal’

  • Weekly family chat – even if it is just you and the child, you are still a family: when you are together, have a ‘family’ chat, where you talk about what matters to this family. How you can be together so you are all OK.
  • Start with small agreements: don’t start with big chores but with something light. Maybe agree to a weekly / weekend meal planner when your child is with you and you can then add that they help you etc. You can talk about pocket money (they love that). You can also talk about what you will do together as fun time when you are together and so on.
  • The 3 Rs: once you have set the scene for your family chats then you can slowly add the 3 Rs (Rules, Routines and Responsibilities). Talk about what rules they think you need in this house so you are all OK. Talk about what routines you need to have a calm home. Talk about what you each can do to help each other. Under activities you will find lots of printable chores charts etc.

Finally, be patient. They need time to adjust to this new setup, and to you. Keep the long-term goal in mind, to reconnect with your child, and to get there you can use small short term goals, by way of the steps above.

Good luck,

Mette Theilmann, Founder of Predictable Parenting and creator of the Parenting Community App