BY SAM J. BUSER, PH.D. AND GLENN F. STERNES, PH.D.
How Dads Can Effectively Parent After Divorce
As Father’s Day quickly approaches, we are often asked: How can I effectively parent (or co-parent) after divorce? Is it really possible?
Answer: Post-divorce, parents should endeavor to work cooperatively, supporting the ex-spouse in the role as parent. Frequent contact focusing on the children (e.g., progress in school, medical condition, behavioral problems, and upcoming events) is necessary for optimal coordination between the parents. The single biggest predictor of the child’s post-divorce adjustment is the level of cooperation between the parents. Of course, if you and your spouse cooperated well, you might not have gotten a divorce in the first place. While cooperating with your ex-spouse is an ideal, it is difficult to bring off in reality.
It is probably self-evident, but we will remind you that frequent visitation and contact with your children is essential to maintain your bond with them. Children who have regular contact with both parents are much less likely to develop emotional or behavioral problems after a divorce.
It is somewhat of a shame, but we men often become better fathers after a divorce. Prior to divorce, fathers often leave much of the parenting duties to their wives. Even in the 21st century, in most marriages, the wife performs more parenting duties than does the husband. It is usually the wife who takes the kids to their doctor’s appointments, who fills out the permission slips from school, and who escorts the children on field trips. After a divorce, however, the father is usually put in the role of having sole possession of the child during more extended periods of time. For example, the father may have the child for an entire weekend, three times a month. This means that Dad is now the one fixing meals, transporting the child, and overseeing their homework when the child is in his “possession.” Quite often, this is a big change for both the child and the father.
One common problem area centers on extended visitation periods. For example, your children may be with you during six weeks of the summer or for extended holiday visits. Some dads respond to this by simply hiring more help or farming the kids out to relatives. Quite often, fathers put their kids into daycare or summer camp for the duration of their “visit.” Not surprisingly, most kids dislike this. They usually would prefer spending more time with you! Dads in this situation are well advised to take vacation time so they can be with the children. It may be inconvenient, but the results are worth it. Every child wants to feel loved by their dad, as well as by their mom. Spending time with your children is the best way to communicate that you love them. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “quality time” somehow makes up for a “lack of time.”
The next question we commonly get is: How do I handle it if my kids don’t want to spend time with me?
Answer: It is very painful when you are looking forward to spending time with your kids, and they seem disinterested. Often fathers in this situation blame the problem on mothers’ influence. It is common, though, for kids themselves to object to visitation. You won’t hear such vocal complaints from younger children; they may be unaware of the whole process, simply going where they are taken. Toddlers and elementary age children usually look forward to their visits with the noncustodial parent. However, as kids get older and busier, going to see the other parent is less of a treat and more of a chore, and an “interruption” to the life they’ve developed. This does not mean that the kids don’t care about you. It does mean that they are becoming more interested in being with their friends than in being with you. This development often hits noncustodial fathers especially hard. They may feel that they have already missed many opportunities to be with their children, and now it seems that the children don’t want to see them at all.
You should also realize that the whole process of going back and forth between households can be a real pain for kids. In some ways, it is a reminder over and over again of the divorce. Just like it may be hard on you to drop the kids off at their mother’s house, it is hard on the kids to switch back and forth between homes. They often wish they could just stay at one place. Try not to take these kinds of feelings too personally. Often, their unhappiness is about the situation and not about the parents.
If your kids are resistant to seeing you, forcing them to visit does not necessarily make things better. You might get them there, but they can make things unpleasant as a way of expressing their anger. In some situations the child may tantrum or actively resist going with you.
The best way to handle this situation is to talk directly with the children about your concerns. Let them know that you want to continue being a part of their lives although you realize that they are busy and have other things to do. You may be able to work things out with them by:
• Allowing your child to bring friends for overnight visitation.
• Making sure that you do things that are in line with your children’s interests.
•Being the one to take your child to his/her various events or activities (e.g. games, concerts, movies).
•Rearranging the visitation schedule to accommodate your child’s special events.
We would encourage you to take a “hands on” approach to parenting wherever possible. Don’t rely on others (neighbors, friends, babysitters) to do the parenting. Especially don’t rely on your ex-wife to help you out with parenting. Fathering can require big sacrifices and schedule changes for dads, but the resulting relationship with your child will be worth the costs. Dads who throw themselves into these new roles usually do them quite well.
Excerpted in part from The Guys-Only Guide to Getting Over Divorce and on with Life, Sex, and Relationships by Sam J. Buser, Ph.D., and Glenn F. Sternes, Ph.D. (2009, Bayou Publishing).