How Do I Handle a Sad Child During Drop Off?

Many people understand the difficult decisions and tough times the divorce process can bring. Problems after divorce, however, are often given less consideration.

A common quandary with post-divorce parents is how to handle a sad child during drop off with the other parent.  Often times, one parent will attribute the sadness to perceived deficiencies in the other parent’s parenting abilities.

Experts warn that certain troubling behavior in children at the time of the exchange can be a sign of parenting difficulties, or even abuse. When a child is too young to articulate the reasons for the sadness, or in some cases the outright refusal to want to go with the other parent, multiple warning signs should not be ignored or taken lightly. However, the parenting switch-off sadness is also common among many children of divorced parents where there are no such issues.

Sometimes, the source of a child’s sadness actually comes from behavior of the parent dropping the child off, rather than any actions of the parent receiving the child. That’s right. The parent dropping off the sad child may actually be causing the sadness at issue.

Many people report their pets, such as dogs, instinctively know when they are unhappy, tense or angry. The pet in some manner senses the emotion and may emulate it or react to it. This is because many pets know their owners so well.

Children are also an excellent barometric gauge of their parents. They are constantly observing their parents and absorbing information from them. For example, it is common for a one or two year old toddler, who does not even understand what a phone is, to insist on holding their parent’s phone and pushing buttons on it. Why does the child do this? It has nothing to do with the function of the phone whatsoever. A toddler will not know how to make phone calls or type in an Internet address. But the child does watch the parent, see the parent on the phone regularly, and wants to emulate the parent.

An infant sometimes will burst into tears when their parent becomes upset, even if they are not capable of understanding words. Why is this? The infant already has developed a significant emotional bond with the parent and the infant literally knows already how to “read” basic emotions emanating from their parent.

Children constantly observe their parents and sense their emotions. They learn to understand not only direct but subtle signs of anger, stress, anxiety, and fear as well as positive emotions such as happiness and love from each of their parents.  So how does all this relate to a sad child during parenting exchange?

A divorced parent may experience sadness, anger, fear, resentment, a combination of those emotions or many other negative feelings when the parent is forced to deliver their child to the other parent. This can be particularly true if the relationship between the divorced parents is a negative one. The emotions of the parent delivering the child, therefore, may be critical in affecting the way the child feels about going to see their other parent.

In most cases, the child wants to love both parents. And it is a parent’s job to let the child feel free to do so. This means it is very important for the parent delivering the child to create a sense of normality, safety and even positivity about the parenting exchange. This is particularly true if there are hard feelings between the involved parents.

How a parent acts during exchanges is crucial to the child’s emotional well-being. That parent will by their own demeanor and actions either create a stress-free and positive transfer situation or a stressful and unhappy situation for the child.

Some parents resist “putting on a happy face” during exchanges.  They theorize that they should be “honest” with the child about their feelings.  However, such actions merely hurt the child.

There are many adult issues that are entirely improper to share with a child in detail. Doing so may harm the child emotionally, perhaps seriously. These include areas such as parental sexual activity, financial issues, certain medical and health issues along with a host of others. This is why certain movies are perfectly fine for adults, as they address adult issues, but completely inappropriate for children. Children are simply not yet intellectually or emotionally mature enough to understand many adult issues and so we protect them from these truths which can hurt them.

Not revealing certain adult situations, feelings and actions to a child, therefore, is in fact the norm.  The effect of one’s emotions on the child is very important in creating the most stable and emotionally solid foundation for the child to use as a springboard for their own growth and development. Knowing what to share and what not to share at all with a child is an integral part of good parenting.

So how should a parent deal with unhappy emotions which arise as a result of the parenting switch? First, be careful not to say anything negative about the other parent. Second, release negative energy regarding the other spouse in a positive way for yourself. Use that energy to fuel a workout, or if necessary discuss your feelings with another sympathetic adult friend or loved one. Release the negative energy and feelings in the best way you can. Also understand that releasing such negative emotions to a child alienates the child’s relationship with the other parent and is harmful to the child’s psychological well-being. It is considered by many experts, and judges, to be a form of child abuse.

Understanding the above can assist with controlling one’s emotions in the presence of the child and around the parenting exchange. In addition, creating a positive event around the changeover can turn a negative experience into a positive one for the child. These simple steps may turn what for a child is a difficult and scary situation into one which is eagerly anticipated and one which the child, when they become an adult one day, will thank you for.

About the Author:

Stuart Scott is a litigation attorney with over 25 years of experience. He has tried hundreds of cases in both state and federal court. Some of his noteworthy victories have been featured in local, state and national publications. Stuart is also listed as a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 Family Law Mediator. Stuart focuses his primary area of practice on family law. He represents people going through divorce and focuses his efforts on providing his legal services and advice to his clients in this area. Mr. Scott may be reached in our Nashville office at 615-620-1710.