Inconsistent Parental Access
Coping with Inconsistent Parental Access
By Gary Direnfeld, MSW
Children develop their sense of self and place in the world through their
relationship to their parents. A childís self esteem is built on the notion
that, ďI am of value as a person to the degree to which my parents take interest
in me.Ē Children feel their parentsí interest in them by the amount of time
spent with them. Many parents talk of quality time, but the best indicator of
quality is quantity and consistency. These days when parents speak of quality,
they really mean that they do not spend much time with their child, but when
they do, they spoil them. This is not good for children. Rather, children need
ample and regular attention from both parents in their normal living situations.
Letís face it, we only do spend time with people we value and children feel
When a parent is not active in a childís life, the child may be emotionally
crushed, feeling unworthy. As such, the child may no longer strive to succeed
socially, academically and later, economically. Some children may even
demonstrate these feelings of unworthiness through disruptive behavior.
Alternately, some children develop rich fantasy lives to protect themselves from
feelings of worthlessness. They tell themselves their parent must be doing very
important things otherwise they would surely be here. Such children grow up with
unrealistic views of other people and relationships.
Many custodial parents find themselves in a bind when the non-custodial parent
fails to exercise regular access. They feel the pain of their child whose heart
may be broken and view them as dying the death of a thousand emotional cuts.
They wonder what to tell their children to help them cope, recognizing the
impact on their self-worth.
For custodial parents helping their children cope with the absence or
inconsistent access of the non-custodial parent, this advice is suggested:
1. Either directly or through another person, tell the non-custodial parent,
their relationship to the children is important. Believe it or not, some parents
do not fully realize this. They may have had a similar experience in their
upbringing. In bringing this to their attention, you may suggest meeting with a
social worker for them to discuss and learn about the importance of their
relationship to their children.
2. Remain calm yourself. Do not exhibit your anger or frustration to your
children, as this will only escalate their bad feelings. Rather, talk with your
children about their feelings. It is appropriate to reassure them that you love
them. It is also appropriate to explain that the non-custodial parentís absence
is a reflection on difficulties they are having and not a reflection on the
children. Be careful here not to bad-mouth the non-custodial parent. When you
bad-mouth the non-custodial parent, you bad-mouth your children because they
recognize they come from both parents!
3. If you know the non-custodial parent is inconsistent, always have a back-up
plan to structure your childrenís time. This is not to say you spoil them with
special attention to compensate for the non-custodial parentís absence though.
Rather, children should not be left with nothing to do, otherwise they may
wallow in their upset and get disruptive due to bad feelings. It is better that
they learn to adapt and use their time constructively.
There is no way to fully protect children from disappointment in life. The key
though is to keep the disappointment from being felt as a reflection of their
worth. By helping them understand the situation and making sure their time
remains structured, you can ease the impact of the situation and teach them
appropriate coping skills at the same time. This will equip them to deal with
other disappointments that life may throw their way, so they can integrate the
experience and then move on to other successes.
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