Kids are tantruming after they stay with Dad. How can Mom help?

Q: My ex-husband and I have shared custody of our children, ages 9 and 6. They live one week with me, one week with him. The children regularly act out toward me through meltdowns in which they hit, kick, scratch, bite and scream at me. Sometimes, the months go by without meltdowns, and sometimes, they happen several times a week. This has been going on since our separation three years ago.

When the meltdowns happen, I stay calm and do what I can to keep them safe. I’ll sometimes hold their wrists, so they can’t hurt me, themselves or others. Neither child will accept a hug in this state. When they calm down, I try to talk about what set them off. I say it’s okay to be angry but not to hurt others, and I tell them I’m ready to accept an apology when they’re ready to give one. I also say how much I love them and always will.

My ex-husband says these meltdowns never happen when they’re with him. My 9-year-old’s teacher does not believe my child could have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and hormones checked out at the last physical exam a couple of months ago. My 6-year-old’s teacher says my child is insecure but doesn’t act out.

Before our separation, their dad had lots of anger and regularly yelled at me and the children. The children rarely talk about their lives with him. They each have mentioned on occasion that he yells. When they do, I try to listen and not ask or say anything that could be judgmental. When I talk to professionals in the family court system and social workers, they say that we have two different parenting styles — authoritative vs. authoritarian — and that I have to accept that.

How can I tell whether the children are suffering emotional abuse from the yelling? And how can I help them build their own coping skills? Conversely, how can I accept this situation and feel as if the children will be okay?

A: This is a difficult situation, and congrats on handling your children’s explosions with kindness and empathy. It isn’t easy to be the “chosen” parent for these meltdowns, and managing these outbursts for three years must be as exhausting to your nervous system as it is to theirs. To help with this question, I’ve turned to Sandi Lerman, founder of Heart-Strong International , an organization that trains and helps parents and professionals care for children with trauma, adverse childhood experiences and anxiety.

To begin, it’s unsurprising that there aren’t any medical issues or ADHD diagnoses for your children’s outbursts, because, as Lerman says: “A separation or divorce is a major loss and disruption to the child’s sense of safety. The meltdowns started at the same time as the separation, so I would agree with the professionals that this is most likely not a medical issue, but rather a psychological response to that traumatic event and the grief and emotional toll it has taken on the whole family.”

This raises the question: Why would your children act out with you, the parent who is gentle and calm, instead of their father, who is angry and punitive? Understanding this dynamic requires a primer on attachment, so let’s dive in.

curaFUN Contributor
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