Writer and broadcaster

My daughter gets upset about weekend access visits to her father. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I wonder if you can help me with a problem I am having with my four-year-old daughter. I separated from her father 18 months ago. At first his contact with her was sporadic, but she has been seeing him every other weekend for about eight months. He lives with his new girlfriend and her two-year-old son. For the past three months or so, she has been saying she doesn’t want to go to her dad’s and getting upset. He has refused to have any sort of relationship with me since I ended things. I think he is still angry. He has planned contact around nursery so that he just has to pick her up and drop her off and we never have to see each other. This has always worked fine, until lately when she’s been getting upset. Recently we changed it so that he picked her up from my house but she refused to go with him, running upstairs and hiding. She finally did but I heard her screaming from streets away. He blamed me and expected me to talk her into going to his house. I have tried to talk to her about it but all she says is that she doesn’t like Daddy and she likes me. I’m not sure what has happened to make her feel like this, as he refuses to talk about his life. I think he’d say the problem is that I don’t discipline her enough and I’m a soft touch. I am wondering if she is getting vibes from his attitude towards me. I am the most important and trusted person in her life so I think she is wary because he refuses to have a relationship with me. I’m not sure what to do about the situation. I think it is very important for her to have a relationship with her dad, and I also value my free time because I am studying for a master’s at the moment but he refuses to help come up with a solution, through mediation and I hate seeing her upset all the time.

It’s not your four-year-old you’ve got a problem with, is it? It’s your ex. I think your daughter is simply manifesting the tensions between you. I wonder if she feels she can’t trust him because it’s you who left him and you no longer live with him? It’s interesting that you say “he refuses to have a relationship with me”.

Your daughter may not see it like that if you’ve told her you left Daddy. The ideal is for a child to have contact with both parents, as long as it is safe – emotionally and physically. So you also need to ascertain if something has happened at his house to make her feel unsafe. What happened three months ago when she started becoming unhappy? Does she calm down after she’s with him? Is it the point of separation that upset her or the whole weekend?

I consulted Sandra Hiller, a manager at Family Lives (familylives.org.uk, 0808 800222). They often hear stories similar to yours. You could also ring the helpline to talk it through further, as could your ex. I hear that he won’t engage with you, but you both need to try more because although your relationship is over, you are still parents. Hiller suggested: “If he won’t go to mediation, is there a family member who could act as a mediator? Could you write to him in a non-threatening way?” Hiller stressed that you have to both do what is in the best interests of your child. And she wondered if your daughter was picking up something from you both, maybe your anger?

She also wondered if the handover could be less traumatic. Perhaps from somewhere neutral. Hiller adds: “When she’s calm, maybe through drawing or play, ask her to try to explain what’s making her upset.” If it isn’t anything that compromises her safety then try to prepare her gently for the times she sees her dad and help her to look forward to it. I asked if this might not make her more anxious but Hiller said that if it’s done sensitively it shouldn’t. She also says that, alternatively, sometimes parents can just not say anything until it’s time for the handover.

If your daughter continues to be upset, at handover and into the weekend, then maybe an entire weekend at your ex’s is too much. Maybe she needs to build up to that again, either by seeing him at a mutual and trusted family member’s house, or on shorter trips. Would anything make her feel better? Maybe being able to talk to you in the evening on the phone, or being able to take more favourite cuddly toys with her? I do understand that these answers are difficult to ascertain but you both need to find a way to communicate. You’ve got another 14 years of shared parenting ahead of you. This article first appeared in Guardian Family on 6 January 2015.