Wednesday, July 10, 2013

It's summer vacation/extended summer visitation time again; sexual abuse allegations revisited

In Texas, many divorced parents have mixed feelings about summer vacation. Most standard custody orders give the parent who doesn't have "primary possession" of the child(ren) 42 days of visitation during the summer. This means that the parent with primary possession gets an extended break from parenting responsibilities and the other parent gets a chance to spend some quality time with the kids when they aren't in school. Theoretically, it's a win-win.

Unfortunately, for a small group of parents, summer vacation means extended visitation for the children in an environment that is not only not stable, but sometimes is actually harmful to the kids. When the former spouse who is not the parent with primary possession, there is usually a good reason, especially if the arrangement was the result of litigation rather than friendly agreement. When the dad has primary possession (still a rare occurrence), and mom is the one with visitation, the risks of extended summer visitation to the kids is greater than normal.

This small group of moms who don't have primary possession of their children usually (not always) have found themselves in this position because they have one or more of these challenges that they haven't been able to overcome: histories and current unstable or abusive relationships, untreated depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, and/or severe personality disorders like borderline personality disorder or antisocial/narcissistic personality disorder. These issues represent a risk because they are nearly always accompanied by very low empathy for the kids and a pathological level of self-absorption and denial that can be dangerous.

The typical pattern for this group of unstable moms is a repetition of a life-long pattern: impulsive commitment to a relationship with a man who is both charming and abusive. If that man also has children from a previous relationship, the potential for a chaotic home environment is multiplied since HE is unlikely to be primary possessory parent, and HIS kids are also likely to be with him for extended periods of time in the summer. Most of these families are middle class at best, meaning that both parents probably work full-time, leaving the kids to supervise themselves for long periods of time. This lack of constant adult supervision during the day is a recipe for major chaos, and dramatically increases the risks for bullying by step-siblings, and even abuse, physical or sexual.

So what is a concerned parent to do?

1. Maintain contact with your kids--a daily phone call to say good night is good for them and for you.
2. When they get home, listen to the stories they tell, but don't interrogate your kids.
3. Watch for changes in their behavior: increased aggressiveness, anxiety, sadness or withdrawal, or regression to more dependent or infantile behavior that can be symptoms of stress.
4. When your kids spontaneously report episodes of abuse, take action.

  • Consult a mental health professional to get some objective analysis of your concerns.
  • If it sounds like abuse, report it to CPS.
  • If there are bruises or other injuries, get them treated; take photos.
  • Call a family law specialist and get some advice about what your options are for protecting your kids.
Most kids enjoy having extended summer visitation with the non-custodial parent and everybody benefits from the change in routine. But if you're a parent in the high risk category I described, don't be afraid, but do be alert.

For more information and tips about divorce:

Dr. Karlson's latest book "When ALL Else Fails: Minimizing the Damage Before, During, and After Divorce is available on Amazon and Kindle. Here's the link:

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