The scene plays out all too often. Sandy's 9-year-old daughter eagerly waits by the window, bags packed. But after 20 minutes, maybe an hour, it becomes obvious her father is not showing up -- again. She begins to cry. "He's not here because he doesn't love me!" she yells, then storms up to her room and slams the door.
"It breaks my heart to see her so hurt," Sandy says. "I don't want to bad-mouth her father, but I can't explain his actions either. I feel helpless, and then I get angry. When I confront him and she hears us fighting, it makes an already bad situation worse. I have no idea what to do." When an ex is unreliable, it can be frustrating and painful for both you and your children. However, there are subtle ways in which the parent who has custody can disappoint the kids as well -- and even contribute to the other parent's lack of commitment. While you can't make your child's hurt go away, you can help him cope with the various disappointments divorce brings. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind.
1. Make it clear your child is loved.
When a parent regularly doesn't come through, kids assume that they are somehow to blame. If only they were more fun or better behaved, they believe, then surely their parent would want to be with them. As a result, self-esteem can plummet, notes Edward Teyber, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernadino, and author of Helping Children Cope With Divorce. You need to continually reassure your child that the other parent's lack of commitment has nothing to do with her "lovability." If, say, your daughter's father failed to show up, you might tell her, "Even adults make big mistakes, and sometimes they hurt the people they love. Canceling at the last minute -- even when he knows that the visit means so much to you -- is wrong. But it doesn't mean you're not loved."
2. Don't sugarcoat the situation.
If you make excuses for the other parent, it cuts off your child's chance to express himself. "If a parent cancels because of a bad cold but went to work that day with the same cold, it's important that your child feel free to voice his feelings," says therapist M. Gary Neuman, creator of the Sandcastles Divorce Therapy Program and author of Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way. Let your child vent without your criticizing or apologizing for the absent parent.
3. Have an alternate arrangement.
If your ex is often a no-show, have a backup plan whenever your child is supposed to see the parent. Whether it's a playdate or a special activity with you, a fun outing diverts the potential letdown. Agree on how long you'll wait for the pickup or the phone call, and then get on with your day. You might say, "Let's wait for half an hour, and if Mom isn't able to come, we'll head out to the mall." If Mom doesn't show, let your child know you can hear her disappointment without judgment ("I understand it may be sad when Mom doesn't come to get you on time"), and let your child respond.
4. Encourage your child to communicate.
You can persuade kids 10 and older to talk to the other parent about his lack of follow-through. "Expressing themselves gives kids a sense of empowerment and can help ease their frustration," Neuman says. "Even if nothing changes, your child will feel better knowing he made an effort to remedy the situation." Talk to your child about voicing disappointment without lashing out in anger. He might say: "I miss you," "It hurts my feelings when you cancel," or "I'm embarrassed when everyone's mom and dad is at the game but mine." If he's uncomfortable talking about the issue, suggest he send a letter or an e-mail.
5. Be willing to alter the visitation schedule.
"Of course, consistency is important, but some flexibility on your part can increase an ex's ability to come through," says David Knox, Ph.D., author of The Divorced Dad's Survival Book: How to Stay Connected With Your Kids. If certain days or times are continually missed, for example, you might say, "If Tuesday dinners aren't good, what would be better?"