Q: My child’s father and I broke up about a year and a half ago and it has been very traumatic for our son, age 6 — so much so that he asks to sleep in my bed every night. His father says he’s just fine at his house and sleeps in his own bed, but at my house he cries and gets very stressed out before bed. Now he’s telling me he doesn’t want to go to his dad’s. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette defined means “good behavior after divorce or separation.” The good news is it sounds as if you and Dad have compared notes, and that’s good ex-etiquette. The bad news is you need to take it one step further — put a plan in place to help your son.
Let’s consider what might be causing your son’s behavior: As a child grows he learns to match his behavior to what’s acceptable. At Mom’s house, being a little weepy might be just fine, whereas at Dad’s there may be a more “Suck it up, buddy” sort of attitude.
If you were together, this would be balanced in the same home. Now that you are apart there are distinct differences in your approaches and therefore you’re seeing two different reactions in your son. This does not address how he really feels; it’s an observation about behavior. But imagine how difficult this might be for a little guy who is in the process of learning how to deal with life situations while going back and forth between parents who are at odds.
So, now he’s telling you he doesn’t want to go back to Dad’s. This could be for quite a few reasons:
First, it’s not true and he’s saying the same thing to Dad — not because he’s lying or manipulative, but because he doesn’t want to leave either of you.
Second, the exchanges are hostile. It’s not Dad’s house he dislikes, it’s how you two act at the exchanges and he doesn’t want to deal with it.
Third, creature comforts. Is his room as comfortable at both homes? Does he just like his bed more at one home than the other?
Fourth, privacy or one-on-one time. Are there more kids or a new partner at Dad’s and he’s feeling neglected? Does he have to share a room when he didn’t before? How about a roommate he doesn’t know?
Fifth, how different is the bedtime routine at Dad’s? The routine doesn’t have to be the same, but it must be something the child looks forward to.
Bottom line, breakups do not change your need to parent together and if your son is in crisis, you don’t blame the other parent, you figure it out together and make changes — not because one of you is right in approach and one of you is wrong, but because you both love your child and from this point on you will make all your decisions in his best interests.
Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation” and founder of bonusfamilies.com.