Renee came into our classroom tired and puffy-- eyed this morning. I've gotten used to Monday being the toughest day of the week for this 4-yearold. Renee's parents have recently separated, and they alternate weeks with her, switching on Sunday nights.
I knew that I would have no luck persuading Renee to participate in any activity on a Monday, whether with the entire group or just with a good friend. Nothing brought a look of interest to her face, much less a smile-not even the clowning of several children who were also trying to coax her out of her mood. Renee cooperated when I asked her to do simple things like put on her jacket, sit at the table for snack, or go outdoors. But she really showed no enthusiasm.
Today was actually a little better than most Mondays. Renee didn't lash out aggressively at her classmates, and she didn't cling or cry.
As the week goes on, Renee seems to become happier. Usually by Friday she's ready to play and is almost her old self again. I wish I knew how to help her through the beginning of the week, though. Renee seems to be taking her parents' separation harder than many other children I've known who were in a similar position. Talking to either or both of her parents hasn't felt like a good option, knowing they must be under great stress themselves.
THE PARENT'S STORY
My husband and I have been separated for a month or so. We agree about the importance of protecting our daughter from our personal problems, but that's easier said than done, especially since we agree about little else. I did want Renee to have the opportunity to remain as close to her dad as she always was. That's why I went along with the idea of sharing parenting equally, one week at a time. But this arrangement doesn't seem to be working well for Renee. She cries about leaving me every other Sunday. And when she returns a week later, it takes several days for her to settle down. She just runs around the house and is argumentative when her father drops her off. I have to start all over again setting limits and reminding her of the rules in my home. I'm sure she misses her dad, too, when she's back with me.
On her dad's weeks, Renee is cared for by many different people, including babysitters, my in-laws, and other family members who apparently have no consistent expectations of her. I suspect Renee eats and sleeps at odd hours and that she has little routine outside of school. So it's understandable that when she's back at home with me it takes her time to readjust to my more structured life and way of doing things.
Any effort to talk about this with her dad only ends up with us in another battle. And Renee has already witnessed far too many of those. I haven't had the courage to go to her teacher and ask if Renee's Sunday night sadness makes her Mondays in school difficult.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
There is little solid evidence, and much controversy, about what arrangement is best for children following parents' separation. Research has made it clear that the greatest influence on a child's adjustment to separation and divorce is the quality of the post-separation relationship between the parents. The continuing conflict between Renee's parents may be further compounding her problem. The outlook for Renee will be far better if her parents can find a way to cooperate about the care of their child.
What the Teacher Can Do
It's very thoughtful of the teacher to try to spare Renee's parents, but in the best interest of their child, it would be wise to forego that consideration. Respect for their privacy is essential, but that doesn't require sparing them the full facts about Renee's "Monday blues." If possible, she should see the parents together, or separately if that is not possible. Knowing the truth will enable them to review their custody arrangement. The teacher might also try to visit Renee in each of her parent's homes. This could help to bridge the gap between her two family worlds. In school, the teacher should give Renee extra individual play time with her, bringing in a good friend only when the time seems right.
After getting both parents' permission, the teacher might read a relevant story to Renee alone. This is one way to provide an opening for her to express her feelings. Whatever she does, though, the teacher's reliable presence and kindness are probably already more of a comfort than she realizes.
What the Parent Can Do
It's essential to be sure that Renee has open access to both parents, at all times, by phone. And as long as the one-weekon/one-week-off arrangement continues, the "away" parent should be free to pick up Renee at school or take her to dinner so that a full week doesn't go by without seeing both parents. That openness should continue, too, if another custodial arrangement is made in the future. But this flexibility requires mutual cooperation. For that and many other reasons, it would be ideal for the parents to work with a child mental health specialist. This professional can help them understand what Renee may be feeling, not in order to place blame, but to set the stage for a plan that would best meet the child's needs.
In the end, it may be decided that Renee would be better off having one permanent home base, with frequent visits, overnights, and dinners out with the other parent. The arrangement should be flexible enough that it can be altered during other phases of her development. In short, the focus needs to change from what is "fair" to the adults to what is in the best interest of the child.