August 29, 2016

Managing parent and child visits when drugs or alcohol is involved can be tricky. Sadly, drug and alcohol abuse is a factor in over 30 million homes (according to Narc-Anon). And, too many of those homes involve children.

If you are dealing with a spouse or an ex that has a drug or alcohol problem, it can be difficult to determine if visits with your child are going to be helpful or harmful. Sometimes, the court has ordered visitation and the decision is not up to you.

Follow Court Orders Regarding Visits

First and foremost, follow any court orders that are in place. If the court order does not make sense or seems unfair, contact an attorney for legal advice on how to proceed.

If there is an immediate safety risk (like, the parent shows up for visitation intoxicated), you may need to contact local law enforcement.

When safety is a repeated concern, you can also contact a visitation center and/or mental health professional that provides therapeutic or supervised visitations.

*Note: Mental health providers can assist your child with COPING with visits, but typically will not make recommendations about custody and/or visitation. 

Don’t Feel Guilty About Your Decision

If the decision for visits is up to you, lose the guilt.   You are thinking about this problem in terms of your child’s best interest and you are already a good parent. There is no clear right or wrong answer here.

Also, know that you can change your mind. Just because you allow visits today does not mean that you have to allow them the next time. Use your parental judgment and seek consultation with a mental health provider to work through this process.

Children Can Benefit From Visits With Your Ex

In general, I will say that most children benefit from contact with their biological parent. Even if those people have pretty serious issues or drug problems. And, Narc-Anon reports that 75% of children will not go on to develop a drug or alcohol problem themselves.

To me, that only sounds like good odds if it is someone else’s kid. If it’s my child, I want more reassurance than that. Anyone that has worked with addicts knows that they can be manipulative, demanding, unpredictable and moody, to say the least. To put a child in that environment does not always feel good.

9 Tips For Managing Visits With An Alcoholic Ex:

  1. At each visit, assess for current intoxication. Notice if the parent appears under the influence. Do they smell like drugs or alcohol? What is their speech pattern? How do they look physically? Obviously, this is a non-scientific method but I believe that most people can trust their instincts here. If the person appears to be high or under the influence, let them be the one to prove you wrong. Cancel the visit.
  2. Set a schedule.  Pick a date/time for visitation and stick to it. Until the other parent has a period of consistent visits, do not allow visits on a random basis. If the parent misses the scheduled visit time, then they will have to wait until the next week.
  3. Start with phone calls. If the parent does not make a regular visit, switch to phone calls on a regularly scheduled day and time to promote consistency before returning to visits.  If they are not consistent with phone calls, switch to letters. Once the parent provides consistent contact, they can move up to the next level of contact.
  4. Whenever possible, do not tell the child in advance about the visits.  Especially for younger and non-verbal children.  We want to avoid having children waiting by the door or looking out the window for someone that may or may not show up. Older children will be more aware of the schedule.  So, if they are expecting a visit and it does not happen, reassure the child that it is not their fault. You can also acknowledge the feeling they are experiencing. “You are disappointed.”
  5. Have a ritual for transitions to and from visits. Try to do the same types of activities together before the visit starts. This can be as simple as reading a book, listening to a story or having a specific snack. Upon return, do not ask questions about the visit. Instead, play a SENSORY activity. This is something that requires the child to touch, taste, see, smell, or listen. Things like baking, playing a game outside, or doing something with their hands will help reduce stress upon the return.
  6. Do not ask questions about the visit: Not, even, “how was your visit?” “or did you have fun?” Instead, welcome the child back by saying, “I am glad you are home” and then offer your transition activity. “Want to watch our TV show?” or “Should we go ride bikes?”  Remember that a child is worried that they will hurt your feelings if they had fun or will get the other parent in trouble if something bad did happen.  Just wait it out.
  7. Remember, bad news travels fast. If something really terrible happened during the visit (like a car crash or injury), you probably would have been contacted by an authority.  Your child will most likely tell you if something else happened.   Trust them to do so in their own time and way.
  8. If the child talks about the visit, reflect on their feelings without judgment. When they do start talking,  comment on the feeling they are expressing.  For example, “You had fun” or “You were disappointed.” It may sound obvious, but do not badmouth the other parent and do not make promises to address any specific issues.
  9.  Plan a counseling session. If your child doesn’t want to visit or is having behavioral or emotional problems upon their return, it is time to seek additional support. It is usually helpful for children to visit their mental health counselor on one of the days immediately following visitation so that the child has a neutral place to discuss any feelings that may arise.

Give Your Child Safety Skills For Visits

Before sending a child for visits,  have a safety plan.

  • Teach young children your real name, phone number and address.
  • Make sure your child knows that they do not have to get in a vehicle with a parent that has been drinking or using drugs.
  • If they have a cell phone, use a code word so that they can all you to notify you of any problems.  (So, they don’t have to say the parent is drunk in front of that parent). They just say, “Mom, don’t forget bananas! and you know that means trouble.
  • Have a neighbor that they can go if they get scared or need help.  If you don’t know anyone, go knocking and introduce your child to them.
  • Practice the safety plan in advance. Role play using the code words, rehearse the phone numbers.

Keep Good Documentation of Visits

Finally, keep good records about the visits.  Note any problems or issues.  Discretely, jot down behaviors or quotes from your child.  Follow up with an attorney if you have additional legal questions and contact a child therapist if you need additional supports.

What else have you done to deal with an alcoholic ex?

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

  • This information is very helpful. I am very concerned about my grandson’s mother coming back into his life too soon. That will require a family conference I am sure but will ultimately be determined by you judgment of his overall well being both mentally and physically.

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