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#273: “My kid won’t be visiting you”: Steps on becoming an Emotional Badass

Hello Captain!

I am in serious need of some guidance. I’ll do my best to keep the background info to being pertinent to the situation. Here it goes.

I have a wonderful four year old son with my terrible, emotionally-abusive ex. I left him when my son was a little over a year old and there has been many legal battles and serious ISSUES between he and I ever since. About 8 months ago he was caught physically abusing his stepson (which my son witnessed) and I was finally able to get a restraining order and complete physical custody. The incident left my son with emotional scars and a ton of guilt. He won’t tell when people are mean to him (i.e. kids throwing rocks at him at daycare and not telling the teacher) because of the guilt about his dad. He has a good therapist and has improved considerably since the incident but he is in a fragile place and needs security and to feel safe for the healing to continue.

My question is about how to handle my ex’s stepmother. She is an incredibly overbearing and demanding person who lives a few hours away from my family and calls my son every so often to chat. That’s ok with me, but she also wants to have him come and stay with her and my son’s paternal grandfather for a few days every so often. I let him go there once and for weeks afterward he was off, super crabby and the beyond normal clingy and had several nightmares. He told my fiancé that he had seen his dad but when we asked about it later he said he hadn’t. I would not put it past The Step-mom to let my ex come over to spend time with my son, even though it’s illegal.

After that instance I decided I didn’t want my son to go up to their house anymore. I’m fine with them coming down for day trips to spend a few hours with him, but not overnight. I fear that he will go up there and be exposed to his dad, or the grandparents will say bad things about me and my fiancé. I realize that it’s possible nothing happened or will happen and I could be overreacting due to my own experiences with my ex, but this is my son and I want to prevent him from having to experience any more traumas. Everything inside me is screaming to cut them off from that much access to him.

So far I’ve managed to evade her requests for visits but now things are coming to a head and I feel that it’s probably time to address the issue. Unfortunately I suck at confrontation and at not feeling responsible for other people’s feelings, so I am just a bit paralyzed as to how the hell to deal with this situation.

Phew, so there is the background. Now for the questions.

Am I being unreasonable in prohibiting overnight visits?

If not, how can I explain to this woman that those will not be happening for a long time? Email?

Any ideas of a script I can use for this?

I feel at a loss as to how to handle all of this and any help you and/or the lovely community can send my way would be very much appreciated.

- Way Too Anxious Mama

Dear Way Too Anxious:

I understand why you’re anxious, and no, you’re not being unreasonable to forbid overnight visits.

As a first step, I think you should talk to your lawyer about what visitation rights grandparents have (or don’t have) in your state. It really varies state by state, so you want to make sure you’re on solid ground and won’t end up back in court with them.

Once you’re armed with that information, make a phone call (I think phone call is best – if you email it will just end in a phone call anyway) with a script that goes like this. Rehearse it first with your fiance/therapist/good friend so you know you can stay even-tempered.

You: Hello, how have you been? I wanted to talk to you about something that’s come up the past few times we’ve talked. I appreciate the interest that you and (Grampa) take in (Son), and I’m happy to arrange for you to talk on the phone regularly or for you to visit him whenever you like, but we won’t be arranging any overnight visits until he’s older.*

Her: Whatever she’s going to say – demands, pleas, WHYYYYYYYYYYY? WHAT’S WRONG WITH US DON’T YOU LIKE US, what do you mean by “older?”, threats, etc.

It will be unpleasant and overbearing. Let it wash over you. It is noise that completely does not matter.

You: I realize that this isn’t good news, but I wanted to be straightforward and let you know: We won’t be arranging any overnight visits for (Son) until he’s older.

Her: (Moar unpleasant stuff, probably.)

You: I know that this isn’t what you want, but I’m sorry, the decision isn’t really up for negotiation. There will be no overnight visits until (Son) is older.

Her: (Unpleasantness.)

You: We should probably end this conversation now. Why don’t you give me a call in a few weeks and we can set up a time for you to come see (son?) Goodnight. 

(*For purposes of this conversation, “older” could mean “in his 30s,” but she doesn’t have to know that right now.)

Do not explain why, do not share your anxieties, do not accuse her of illegally letting her son see your son or other shenanigans, do not invoke his therapist or what happened last time. It’s not important. What’s important is that you are his mom  (& legal guardian) and you think it would be better if the question of overnight visits were left until your son is older and better able to handle being away from you & the confusion of maybe seeing (or hearing about his dad), etc.  Your mantra is “No overnight visits until he’s older.” Any reasons you give are just invitations to her to try to find chinks in your armor and argue you into submission.

When you’re dealing with an “overbearing” personality prone to browbeating, manipulation, silent treatment, and/or temper tantrums, absolutely the best thing you can do is convey that you’re perfectly okay if they’re unhappy. Their unhappiness doesn’t scare you. Their negative emotions are their own problem to deal with. You’ll be over here, doing your thing. If you can get through that conversation with her without giving in or negotiating? You will have handled your shit like an EMOTIONAL BADASS.

Now, this doesn’t mean the end of it. She will bring it up with you again either directly or in some kind of circular way. She will try to get him to do her work for her: “Mama, why won’t you let me go see Grandma?” and make you the bad guy. Give her a little time to get used to the new world order. If she’s sweet? Be sweet back. But don’t relax your vigilance.

When and if she does start pushing you again, a good initial response is “I’m not interested in discussing this until he’s older. Was something about that unclear to you?” [LONG AWKWARD POINTED SILENCE OF GLARING]

The follow-up response the second or third time is: “If you can’t respect this decision I will have to seriously reconsider whether it’s a good idea for you to spend time with my son. Why don’t you take a month or so and really think about what you want to happen.” And then you shut off contact for a bit.  This is like any time you have to enforce boundaries: The price of a continued relationship is respecting your rules.

tl;dr 1) Talk to your lawyer 2) Become emotional badass 3) Love that sweet kid of yours and help him be okay.

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34 comments
  1. robiewankenobie said:

    way too anxious? uhm, no. you are understandably concerned. trust me, you will never regret going mama bear on this one, you will, however, regret NOT going mama bear. GO MAMA, GO!!!!!

  2. CL said:

    I love this advice. This is a perfect game plan for asserting yourself with someone who is going to use every possible argument and manipulation tactic to get you to change your mind. I’m going to bookmark this for the next uncomfortable conversation in my life.

    My only suggestion is that I think the stepmother will keep asking why, and I would want to prepare some sort of response before the jump to “I know that this isn’t what you want…” so that I’m not just completely ignoring the question. I get that ignoring the questions is a key part of the strategy, and I definitely don’t think she should give reasons. I also think it should be okay to ignore questions and respond with a reiteration of your decision, but for some reason, ignoring questions completely would make me feel like I was being hostile.

    So, my script would maybe include a response to demands for explanations along the lines of, “I’m not going to get into a discussion of my parenting decisions.” that at least acknowledges the question and indicates that the reasons are not up for debate. Then I’d proceed with the rest of the script.

    “JUST TELL ME WHY”
    “I’m not going to get into a discussion of my parenting decisions. [back to captain's script] I know that this isn’t what you want, but I’m sorry, the decision isn’t really up for negotiation. There will be no overnight visits until (Son) is older.”

    • JenniferP said:

      I like it!

      Edited to Add: With a reasonable person, you could totally explain the why of your decision-making. “He had nightmares and a really rough time of it when he came home last time, and after talking to his therapist we decided to hold off on overnight visits until he’s older and can handle it better.” The reasonable person would think “Oh my god, I don’t want this small boy to have nightmares and be upset, and while it’s maybe inconvenient for me to drive down to see him, we’ll work something out.

      The less reasonable person will go straight to the “BUT I’M HIS GRANDMA DON’T YOU WANT HIM TO SEE HIS GRANDMA A BOY SHOULD SEE HIS GRANDMA” place, which is telling, because that’s not about the boy at all (he won’t really notice if he doesn’t see her, or, if he does, he’ll ask about her on his own), it’s about Grandma and what her idea of a grandma is (and possibly about her secret plan to reunite him with her stepson behind your back, which is hard to do under your watchful eye). Since you suspect that the Stepmom is one of the less reasonable sorts, she doesn’t get to hear the explanation, even if it’s a perfectly good one.

      Also, I know speaking up is hard, but you know that if you did let him go back there you’d eventually be following with binoculars to try to catch them violating the custody arrangement & restraining order. STRESSFUL.

      • I think even with a reasonable person there’s nothing to gain from explaining your reasoning for things on which you’re absolutely not going to change your mind.

    • Britt said:

      Seconding this. “I’m his mother and it’s my decision” or some variant is a pretty good trump card in this case if you can stand your ground.

    • JA said:

      yes! better than saying “because of REASONS”.

      another suggestion when someone’s having a total whyyyyy tantrum: hold the phone away from your ear until the raging/whining settles (YAY for telephones). if you can’t get a word in edgewise anyway (highly likely in these situations), why should you have to listen to that bullshit?

  3. FlyBy said:

    Your son got nightmares from one overnight visit. Be the mama bear.

    Saying no to pushy people is tough, especially when you’re coming out of an abusive relationship yourself. Remember wanting to be a superhero when you were little? Now is the time. Best wishes to the both of you. You’re doing the right thing, and you’re going to be okay.

    • AMM said:

      For what my opinion is worth: if you do have to make a case for your decision (e.g., to family court or someone appointed by them), I would think that “he got nightmares after the last visit” is reason enough. The grandparents don’t have to have done anything wrong.

      I also agree with the poster who mentioned that many 4-year-olds can’t handle an overnight away from mama, regardless of who it’s with. Especially a 4-year-old who has watched his family break up. (“I lost my daddy. Maybe this means mommy’s going away, too.”)

      • FlyBy said:

        Yeah, I’m struggling to think of a situation where ‘he had nightmares’ isn’t a good enough reason to keep a kid home. Maybe life-saving medical treatment – that’s gotta happen no matter how scary the hospital is. But nothing else comes to mind.

        I was okay with spending the night with my (loving, wonderful) grandparents at that age, but only because I’d been spending the night with them on a semi-regular basis since I was born. Overnights at friend’s houses weren’t fun until… probably eight or ten, I think.

  4. M'fly said:

    Yikes, what a shituation. I like this advice a lot, and I’m glad this question was asked.

    I’m about to leave my own emotionally abusive douchenozzle, with whom I have a 6 month old baby, and I intend to fight for sole custody with no visitation due to his threats towards me and our child. This is a situation that I could totally see coming up for me a couple of years from now, and this is an awesome heads up. I’m saving this script for a multitude of potential obstacles.

    • PomperaFirpa said:

      Holy cow, M’fly, GOOD LUCK. We are all rooting for you and your sweet little one.

    • JenniferP said:

      Keep us updated, ok? We are rooting for you to get the hell out of there.

    • Sheelzebub said:

      Please, please update us!

  5. Nthing the Captain’s advice. Also, if you haven’t read it, maybe consider reading Lundy Bancroft’s “When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse” ? It has pretty good-sounding advice (I don’t have kids, but a lot of it would have made MY childhood less fucked up) about how to support and reassure your children through behaviors like you mentioned with your son. YMMV, and you are the best judge of whether it will help you or not, of course.

  6. Letter writer, I just want to say that you sound like a good mom. Your instincts are good and you’re doing the right thing. <3 Good luck.

  7. Alice said:

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to avoid putting your son in a situation you suspect might be upsetting or harmful for him.

  8. Sheelzebub said:

    I do not think you’re jumping the gun, here. I also think you’re perfectly within your rights to keep your son from staying overnight with his paternal grandparents. I would also second the advice to talk to your lawyer in case she threatens to make a legal case out of it–that way, you have all of your ducks in a row. I think the fact that you’re not cutting them out completely, however, would bode well in your favor–it’s completely within your rights as a parent to restrict overnight visits with adults who are not guardians.

  9. Liennae said:

    I was wondering about what if the state does allow the Grandparents some rights? Would the LW be willing to go back to court over it? It might be worthwhile to consider. I certainly don’t want to implicate the parents are at fault for their son being a douchecanoe, but it is possible that this is something their son learned at home and the LW has only seen the tip of the iceburg so far.

    I’m sorry that you and your son have to go through this, and I hope that everything turns out alright in the end.

    • Sheelzebub said:

      I *think* that because the LW doesn’t keep the grandparents from talking to her son or seeing him, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in that regard. (And if they did allow their violent son to be near the LW’s kid, then they’d theoretically be the ones in hot water.) It’s completely reasonable to decide that your child isn’t ready for sleepovers after all or that you’d rather be there when they visit him.

  10. JA said:

    “Everything inside me is screaming to cut them off from that much access to him.”

    when typing things like that, it’s clear that overreaction is just not an issue. CA’s advice is excellent.

  11. LW said:

    And this is why I asked the Captain for her advice! Thank you to all for the good wishes and the helpful commentary. I’ve been avoiding this for months and I’m so sick of worrying about how to handle it! I plan to take the plunge on with this difficult phone call this weekend…I left a message for my lawyer this morning to confirm what my state laws are for grandparent visitation. I’m fairly certain I’m in the clear but a double check will certainly make me feel more confident.
    Good luck to you M’fly with leaving your douchenozzle. Dealing with douchnozzles reaction to you leaving and legal parts REALLY SUCK! but once it’s done it’s amazing. I have never truly regretted getting the hell away from my ex. My life is 80 thousand times better for having cut him out of it as much as possible.

    Thank you all again, especially to the Captain.

    • JenniferP said:

      You’re welcome. And hey, use the made-up email of LWemail@gmail.com if you keep commenting in this thread. I edited it in your comment – before you were accidentally outing your real identity via gravatar. Thanks to another commenter for the good catch.

  12. I think you’ve given yourself the wrong handle. May I suggest “Appropriately Anxious and Reasonably Protective Mama”? I realize it’s a bit of a mouthful, but it seems way more accurate.

  13. G said:

    Even if all of your son’s relatives were delightful, wholesome, reliable people four is awfully young for overnight visits without mom. It may make you feel more confident in using the Captain’s script if you remind yourself beforehand that most four year olds don’t visit anyone on their own.

    • alphakitty said:

      Very true. It also depends on the kid. One of my kids loved sleeping over at her friend’s at a very young age (one particular friend, not just any old body), the other wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic. A couple of their friends declined sleepovers waaaaay past 4, because for them it would not be fun, it would be anxious. They’ve been to slumber parties when they were little where one or two kids would stay for most of the party, even change into their PJs and brush their teeth along with everyone else, and then get picked up when it was time to go to bed. The point is, even under “normal” circumstance, it’s all about what’s right for your individual kid, not kids in general. Even if your son would be absolutely safe at the grandparents’, even if he would not be exposed to the ex, the fact that his last visit was literally nightmare-inducing for him is enough reason to say “not ’til he’s older.” Four years old is soooo little, even without the added vulnerability of past trauma! Be the mama bear.

      • Sheelzebub said:

        This is so true! When my niece was four she was not into sleepovers at all.

      • Rosa said:

        my brother never slept away from home, ever, because he wet the bed until well into middle school. And then one day in his teens he picked up and moved to another country as an exchange student, and has been an independent multilingual expat ever since.

        Denying a kid who wants more independence might be overprotective. Siding with your kid and his safety against other adults is just modeling right living for the kid.

  14. Emma said:

    Loving the Captain’s advice, but I also want to congratulate you, letter writer, on having already solved the biggest problem, which is your son being alone with grandma. You already have full control of his whereabouts and have already ensured his well-being. The problem you wrote to the Captain about – how to talk to grandma about it – is secondary and smaller and actually nothing about your son’s life rides on it. If the conversation completely blows up and you lose track of this script and you feel like it was a disaster, guess what? He’s still not staying there overnight.

    You are already an emotional badass!

    Also, of course consult a lawyer, but just out of curiosity I looked up grandparent visitation rights in my state, and it looks like you’re fine. Illinois law defines visitation as, “in-person time spent between a child and the child’s parent” (also applies to grandparents). It doesn’t sound like you want to deny grandma time with him. I’m also having a hard time imagining any state passing a law that compelled you to accept sleep-over invitations, unless it was part of an already agreed-upon custody arrangement.

    • JenniferP said:

      I love this framing. The decision was the important part. The conversation’s just conversation. The LW has survived far worse in extricating herself from the old relationship and will survive this one.

    • CL said:

      “If the conversation completely blows up and you lose track of this script and you feel like it was a disaster, guess what? He’s still not staying there overnight.”

      Oh wow, thank you for saying this. It’s so true.

      I recently had an unrelated Important Conversation that went fairly badly, and reading your comment made me get all emotional because you’re right — the important thing was that I did it.

  15. PomperaFirpa said:

    Oh, LW, many jedi hugs to you. What a mess, what a horrible ex, what horrible parents he has; your poor little guy! And poor you: I know I never imagined just how much better I was going to have to get at dealing with people to be TinyFirpa’s advocate, until suddenly here I was having to Grow As A Person and Get Over My Shit and, wow, that is not easy. You have all my sympathy, and I am crossing all crossables for you.

    When I got pregnant, one of my friends informed me that one of the joys of motherhood was discovering that humanity is totally part of the animal kingdom, and that there would be instincts popping up that would make me bare my teeth and growl until people backed away from my baby. You’re having those instincts, and you’re not wrong. You know your son; you recognize when something has happened to him, even if he won’t talk to you about it; you may not be able to pin down the exact reason, but something hinky is going on, and you are totally right to lock everything down and put it under your control.

    More, you know your ex’s stepmother, and if she’s anything like she’s coming across in this letter, she’s a determined source of chaos who refuses to understand that she could possibly be doing anything wrong. Gee, what a gem! It sounds like she is ignoring your efforts at control and screwing up the delicate work your son’s therapist is doing to help your son put himself back together. Again: YOU’RE NOT WRONG. This is bad news. Anyone who puts her pushy-ass needs ahead of the mental health of a four-year-old is… well, let’s just say I’m not surprised to find her in the same family as your abusive ex. Lot of bad control issues in that family, and since you’re the one in control now, the stepmom will undoubtedly throw a temper tantrum if she doesn’t get to do exactly what she wants to do whenever she wants to do it.

    You have a four-year-old. You know from temper tantrums. YOU CAN DO THIS. She’s not different, she’s just older. You do what you did with your son when he was tiny: you stand your ground and stay calm and wait for her to blow herself out. It’ll probably take a while, and obviously a grown-up has a lot more scathing things to say than a tiny person, but it’s the same deal: she’s throwing a temper tantrum. Imagine her throwing herself to the ground and crying in melodramatic toddler fashion and peeking at you every once in a while to see if this is having the desired effect. Keep your stern mommy face on. YOU KNOW THIS STUFF. YOU CAN DO IT.

    The Captain does the best scripts, and Emma framed this beautifully: at the end of the day, this is still just clean-up after the big battle. You’ve got this one; don’t let the evil stepmother make you think you don’t. She’s not in charge here; she’s not in control here; she’s just a very big toddler, throwing a temper tantrum. Put her in time-out and let her sulk; it doesn’t change anything, and you are still in charge.

    You can do this. You have already rocked the hell out of this situation, and clearly you are an awesome advocate for your son. YOU CAN DO THIS.

    • JenniferP said:

      I love the “unreasonable person as toddler” image. It helps so much.

  16. L. said:

    I have nothing unique to contribute but just wanted to say I love all of these comments and NO you are not overreacting and rock on with your emotional badass self, LW! You’ve done the separation and the legal battles and everything else. You will get this done too. And hugs to your son–I hope his emotional health continues to improve.

  17. delbelcoure said:

    This strikes home to me in a sideways way. My brother was abusive to his children. I personally saw him yell at his son and box his ears. I knew it was wrong and I had no skills to do anything but watch dumbfounded. It’s still painful to re-feel that experience. In the divorce, he lost custody of them and was only allowed to visit them if another adult supervised the visit.
    My parents are good parents; but still, my mom downplayed my brothers aggression and put blame on his ex-wife. She got tired of supervising visits with my brother and relaxed her vigilance. She really loves her grandkids, but my brother’s abrasive personality and her love for him made her a bad advocate for her grand kids.
    The grandparents can come visit if they want to see their grandson. My parents did this for me. I told them I didn’t want my children exposed to my brother. I told them, they could come visit us, but I wouldn’t visit them if there was any chance of my brother being at their house while my family was visiting. From my personal experience, I council you to go with your gut instinct and protect your child the best you can.

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