Whether or not to allow parents access to their children is a tricky issue, partly because each situation is different and partly because much of that decision is subjective. First let’s talk about the extremes. They are the easiest.
Parents who are known to abuse drugs or alcohol or who are physically or emotionally abusive should not be allow unsupervised access to their children.
Parents who have always been conscientious but who cannot care for their child because of job loss or health, for example, should be allowed to see the children when it is convenient and to the extent that it doesn’t make the child feel pulled in two directions. You can facilitate that by making the child aware that your relationship with the parents is a positive one.
If visitation is outlined by court order, follow it barring something negative not foreseen by the judge.
That leaves a whole range of possibilities. Chances are good that you and the child’s parents don’t parent alike. “But Daddy lets me,” is a good opportunity to remind the child (as well as yourself) that we all answer to different bosses. Teachers, scout leaders, coaches, church leaders all have different expectations. In your home, you’re the boss.
It is possible the child will return spoiled, mouthy, or angry. However, it seems to me that if the child’s behavior returns to your expectations shortly after coming home, there isn’t much cause for concern. If, however, you get indications that the parents are making the child feel guilty, or are undermining you, or that the visits trigger negative memories—whether or not the child is consciously aware of it—visitation might need to be shortened or supervised. I suggest you always ask open-ended questions when the child returns. Some examples might be: what did you do; who else did you see; how are you feeling. Then listen. Ask follow-up questions. If the child seems upset, expresses fear, or has nightmares ask questions—then listen.
There have been times when I wasn’t sure if Mary Ellen really was afraid, for example, or was manipulating because she wanted to put off going to sleep. I asked her school counselor how I could tell. She said, “Trust your gut.” My gut doesn’t always know the answer, but it’s the best barometer I have.
If these issues go unresolved for any length of time or get worse, I suggest seeking professional help. Your school counselor is a start. If the issues are beyond the scope of her job description, she can likely make a referral. Some mental health professionals take Medicaid.
What if the parent is in jail? Here’s my gut talking again. You and the child need to be realistic about the situation. Seeing the parent at least once would make the situation clear to the child. And he deserves an explanation as to why mommy or daddy is there. It should be factual—neither blaming nor excusing. The child needs to know there are consequences for breaking the law.
This is a thorny issue. I don’t pretend to be an expert. Feel free to agree, disagree, or add information.