I am writing to ask a question that has presented to me a number of times. I am an elementary school counselor and have worked in outpatient mental health as well. I hear many parents asking questions about the struggles they face when their child returns from visitation with the other parent. Most recently, a parent told me of him going to pick up his daughter and her screaming, yelling, hitting, and crying, saying things like "you don't love me, I don't live with you, you are mean to me." The 6 year old finally cried herself to sleep for the remainder of the two hour ride home. My response to him was "you are not alone," as I realize many times this happens. I advised him not to question her statements while she is that upset as she is likely confused and unable to process anything of logic during those episodes. He continued to question "what do I do when she hits like that in the vehicle?" That I was not sure how to answer and would appreciate any advice or reference to materials.
Thanks so much,
Angie Judd, LCSW
How wise to inform this parent that children can't process information when they are upset. Regarding the hitting in the car, safety is the first concern. I would suggest pulling the car over immediately. Then say, "I know you are angry, but I can't allow you to hit me." Then, try holding the child. If that doesn't work, step outside of the car (if in a safe place) and wait for the child to calm down. Then, when she has calmed down start by validating her feelings and make some guesses. "You are very angry. When you hurt others, my guess is that you feel hurt. I wonder what you are feeling hurt about? Could it be that it really hurts you to have parents that are divorced?" If you are right in your guess, your child will feel validated. Simple validation often had a calming effect. If you are wrong, she might tell you what is hurting her feelings so much that she wants to hurt others. If not, just feeling understood is enough. Once your child has calmed down and feels validated for her feelings, she will be more open to discuss alternatives maybe soon, or may the next day. When she has calmed down enough for a discussion, tell her that feelings are always okay, but that what we do is not always okay. It is okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to hurt others. You might brainstorm with her other things she could do such as using her words to share her feelings, or drawing a picture about how she feels. Of course, it is important to let her know that the divorce was not her fault. Most children are very egocentric and think everything is their fault.
Are you familiar with our book Positive Discipline for Single Parents It is filled with suggestions for working with the "other parent" as well as tons of other useful information for single parents.