Ask the Expert: My son is unsettled after weekends with his father

It is important to tune into your son and to think what might be upsetting him. Be patient as he may not be able to articulate fully what is going on for him. Photograph: Thinkstock

It is important to tune into your son and to think what might be upsetting him. Be patient as he may not be able to articulate fully what is going on for him. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Jun 24, 2014, 01:00

Q My seven-year-old son spends every second weekend (Friday to Sunday evening) with his father, my ex-husband. (We separated 18 months ago.) When he comes back from the visits he doesn’t talk to me about what went on over the weekend. He is often very tired and upset, and it can take a few days for him to get back into his routine.

Should I change his access with his father, perhaps shortening the visit? I know his father would object to this.

A Even though children really benefit from ongoing relationships and contact with both parents after separation, they are often unsettled at the time leading up to or immediately following a handover between parents. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, depending on the circumstances of the separation, parents themselves can be stressed about handovers: they can dread meeting the other parent (however briefly) and there can be lots of practical issues (clothes, diet, homework, other arrangements) that need to be communicated at the time of handover.

In addition, children can be stressed at handover: they can pick up on their parents’ worries; or be anxious about seeing a parent after a gap; or they can find it hard to manage the practicalities (not having their stuff in a second home, being away from friends, and so on).

Also, the handover can bring up painful memories of the separation or remind them of the losses they have experienced. It is important to tune into your son and to think what might be upsetting him. Be patient as he may not be able to articulate fully what is going on for him.

Negotiating contact and handovers with his father

I wouldn’t recommend changing the contact with his father without first negotiating this with your ex-husband. Shortening the visits may not be the answer as this curtails the benefits of contact with his father. (Indeed, some of your son’s upset could be caused by the fact that the visits are too infrequent and he would be more settled if his father had more regular contact.)

However, it is worth thinking through how you can make the transition times more settled for your son. Ideally, it would be best if you could discuss these issues directly with his father and agree a plan.

The key to negotiation is to focus on a goal centred on your son’s needs – How can we help him settle after contact? – and to be constructive and positive – What can we both do to help?

Arrange to meet his father to go through these issues, and seek the help of a mediator if such a conversation might be difficult.

Agreeing a good routine for contact with his father

Predictability and routines are key to helping children settle so try to agree these with his father as much as possible. It could be that the routine in his father’s house is not helping the situation. For example, it is common that separated fathers, out of a wish to pack as many “good times” in as possible, make the weekend a very intense experience for their child.