Many Tuesdays at my house end in tears. That’s because Wednesday after school is when my sons go to their dad’s, which means we don’t see each other for a few days. It’s really hard for all of us. My older son proposed that we all live together in a compound. I praised his ingenuity but squashed the idea. It’s hard when a child wants to live with both parents—but if a child doesn’t want to live with a parent, it can be even harder.
I know it’s not that my kids don’t want to be with their dad—it’s that they’re sad to leave me. I bet they cry the night before coming to my house in anticipation of missing him, too. But what do you do when a child doesn’t want to live with a parent? If the tears are accompanied by “please, Mom, don’t make me go,” what do you do? Try these 4 things to make the situation better.
(If you have the opposite problem and your kids say they’d rather be with Dad, here are five good ways to respond.)
1. Work to make both houses feel like home.
A possible reason your child doesn’t want to live with Dad is that your house feels like home and his feels like “away.” You know how nice it feels to go to a hotel that has thought of all the amenities? You don’t have to stress over packing a hairdryer or shampoo. It’s all there! Think about how your child feels week after week. Did I pack my deodorant? Are my flip-flops in my backpack? Not only should both houses have toiletries and clothing, but games, books, a special stuffed animal, and a space to call their own go a long way to make kids with two houses feel comfortable.
2. Set Dad up for success.
You know a better relationship with their dad is better for your kids, but this will take some humility and compromise. If Dad’s house is boring or he’s always busy working, your child might be feeling neglected. It’s time to challenge your ex-husband to get creative. Our fatherhood program All Pro Dad has great resources on single fatherhood and parenting in general. Small moments of fun leave a big impression on kids, so send your ex-husband a link to some of iMOM’s games and activities. How much would your kiddo love to get to Dad’s and have a scavenger hunt waiting? If a child doesn’t want to live with a parent because he or she feels ignored, a little bit of effort will show the child he or she is a priority.
3. Dig deeper.
As much as we’d like them to, scavenger hunts don’t fix all problems. If a child doesn’t want to live with a parent, it might be a safety issue. If your child is old enough, ask what is happening there that makes him or her not want to go. For small children, ask them to draw a picture of life at Daddy’s house. A professional counselor and lawyers might need to be involved. If talking to a lawyer isn’t an option or not necessary, try to have a calm discussion with your ex about what’s best for the kids.
4. Make them go anyway.
If your child is not in danger, but he or she doesn’t like life at Dad’s house, you need to make him or her go anyway. At the time of our divorce, our proposed arrangement was for my ex-husband to have 25 percent custody of our sons, not because he didn’t want to be with them but because he worked nights. I have a clear memory of my lawyer saying that the judge we were going to meet with might not grant him less than 50 percent because she believes so strongly in the importance of the presence of fathers. You might not like your ex-husband and he might not be the perfect example to your kids, but he is their father and he has a right to be in their lives.
Has your child ever not wanted to go to Dad’s? What did you do?