One of the most contentious subjects I deal with when working with high-conflict parents is phone communication with the children. Calls to the children should be a pleasant experience for THEM – a reminder that both parents care – and should not put children in the center of the battle. Here are some rules I have about phone calls that might be worth discussing with your clients and/or co-parents:
1. Kids should have free access to either parent. They should not be restricted by the court order when they want to chat with either parent. However, if a child is excessively accessing a parent in order to tattle or complain about the other parent’s rules, then the parent receiving the communication has a responsibility to shut that down with the child. Listen and then let the child know that their other parent is in charge and can handle anything that comes up for them. Assure them you can talk about it later, but for now, you both should respect the other parent’s time and authority in the other house. If the child persists, let it go to voicemail or stop responding. I know it is difficult when your child seems to be in distress, but if it’s a safety issue, call 911. If not, let the other parent and the child work it out in their own way.
2. Parents should have their own rules about the child’s electronic usage in their own home, and should respect the rules of the other parent. If the other parent says no phone after9:00 PM, then don’t call your child after 9:00! Share your household rules with the other parent and the child so that everyone knows up front what to expect. The rules should not be to limit communication between child and parent, but should simply be to monitor risk for the sake of your child’s safety and emotional well-being.
3. Don’t use the calls to the child to get access to the other parent. That causes the child to not want to talk if he/she thinks it will end up in a big fight. Co-parent communication should be completely separate from parent/child communication.
4. Don’t use the calls as a welfare check. Asking the children if they had dinner, brushed their teeth, or did their homework are innocent enough questions. However, asking in a way that indicates you are worried has quite another motive. “Is mommy in a good mood over there?” or “How did daddy react when you told him you failed your math test?” are questions that put the child in the middle and suggestive ideas in their heads.
5. Who pays for the phone doesn’t determine usage. In a perfect world, parents would equally split the cost of their child’s phone, but that rarely happens because of the way phone plans typically work. Even if you bought a phone for your child because the other parent won’t or thinks the child is too young, your child has been given permission to use it by you, so for all intents and purposes, it is the child’s property and responsibility. To say that the child is not allowed to take it to the other parent’s home or to use it to access the other parent because it is YOUR phone, puts the child directly in the middle of the parental conflict. Stop it!