My ex and I argue over my time with our daughter. How can I make things better?

·5-min read

I have been divorced for eight years and my daughter, who is 10, lives with her mum. I usually see her every other weekend. I say “usually”, because my daughter’s timetable is very much driven by her mother and the time with me is a “fit in”. It has been like this for four years. My ex and I have both moved on to new relationships.

There have been occasions where my ex and I argue about the time my daughter gets to spend with me. My daughter will call and tell me that she wants to do something else (go to a birthday party, say) on a weekend that she had been supposed to spend with me. When my ex and I argue, this understandably upsets my daughter, and I think she feels conflicted over which parent to support.

When my daughter is with me we have great fun and I value the father-daughter time: like most 10-year-olds she talks a lot, tells me her stories. I recently saw her perform at school (my ex attended as well) and afterwards, I waited for her to come out. When she did she very much acted as if I was a stranger, and behaving in the opposite way to how she does when she is at home with me. She seems to act like that only when her mother is around; the last time was when my daughter invited me to a school fair.

Is this normal for children with divorced parents? How can I approach this behaviour with my daughter?

It’s great when visiting arrangements can be agreed on informally (ie without going to court) but this does leave them open to interpretation, and abuse. What changed four years ago to impact on your time with your daughter?

Children do become more self-conscious as they get older (this process peaks in adolescence) and ignoring parents is fairly common, however upsetting. However, I see this is about more than that.

She may be wondering how to divide her time so she’s fair to you both, and it may feel easier spending time with her mum

When was the last time you and your ex sat down and calmly discussed how often you see your daughter, rather than waiting until it’s an argument that would be upsetting for all concerned, but especially your daughter? Of course as she gets older, she has other things to do and her focus shifts from parents to friends, but it’s important that visits are discussed and some rules agreed upon.

Maybe the next time your daughter can’t be with you you can make sure your time together is rearranged. Would family mediation (familymediationcouncil.org.uk) help if you and your ex find it hard to talk?

Family psychotherapist John Cavanagh sees this sort of situation a lot, and he felt your daughter may be struggling with divided loyalties: “She may be wondering how to divide her time so she’s fair to you and her mum, and it may feel easier spending time with her mum as she lives with her.”

Cavanagh also thought your daughter might be trying not to upset either of you, a tough call for a child. He also wondered if school functions were a particular situation where your daughter isn’t “sure how to alter her behaviour if she’s only used to seeing one parent [at a time]”. Does she see you both of together very much? Would it be possible for the three of you – or even the five of you, with your new partners – to spend time together so your daughter gets used to seeing her parent together, instead of one or the other?

Cavanagh agreed that another conversation about visits is in order. He also suggested trying to repair your relationship with your ex if it has got tricky, because that will make “having those difficult conversations easier”.

Related: I worry that ours is not a happy house. What can I do to lift the mood? | Ask Annalisa Barbieri

Unfortunately a lot of separated parents use their children as currency, rather than working on their relationship as separated parents to enable them to co-parent effectively.

It’s great that you and your daughter get on well when you are together. This might be a good time to talk about what she needs, what she finds difficult about the arrangement and work out a way to try to overcome those difficulties. Don’t make it about you: don’t say things like “Daddy gets upset when …” but “that looked like a difficult situation for you; what did you need in that moment?” Don’t expect instant answers, she’s only 10, but putting her needs and feelings first will be a relief for her. And however tempting this is, don’t criticise her mum: children have a really strong sense of justice and having one parent “vent” about the other puts them in an impossible situation.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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