Ten Tips to Help Dads Stay Connected to Their Kids After Divorce

Laura Markham's picture

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I often hear from women concerning their husband's kids from a prior relationship. They notice that Dads who don't live with their kids find it challenging to stay connected, and describe the difficulties of integrating these kids into the family when they come to visit.

Being a step-mom is never easy, because virtually all kids grieve the loss of their parents' relationship and wish their parents would get back together. Step-moms are usually seen as interlopers, no matter how positive their intentions, so they have to be especially mature and avoid getting their feelings hurt.

And of course weekend relationships don't come as naturally as daily relationships. Dad doesn't know his kids as well anymore -- after all, they change every day. The kids don't feel as close to him, and they aren't as comfortable at his place as they are at home. Sensing their discomfort, Dad may feel more insecure and simply not know how to bridge the gap. Often, his solution is to spend less time with them, and the situation can spiral into an estrangement that both Dad and kids will regret for the rest of their lives.

There is another path -- Dad can make it a priority to connect with his kids, no matter what. It takes courage on the part of the Dad, and some real emotional work. But the rewards are huge. Because this is something most men need some help with, they are often extremely grateful for the support of their wife in this process. How?

  1. Start by acknowledging how challenging the whole thing is. Can he verbalize his commitment to staying in his kids' lives as a good father? Be sure he knows that although his kids may not feel as comfortable with him as they did before, that can be overcome if he's willing to do the work to build a good relationship with them.

  2. Agree that until the relationship feels solid, Dad needs to focus on connection, not on discipline. No lecturing. Set limits of course, but with understanding. Remember that the rules might be different at Mom's house, and that kids behave worse if they feel worse. Cut some slack for awhile. Once you have a great relationship, the child will be much more cooperative.

  3. Make the time with Dad and the new family special. That doesn't mean spending a lot of money. A simple dinner of the child's favorite food -- pizza? pasta? -- followed by a fun board game is a great way to spend an evening. Then snuggle up for a bedtime story and tuck-in. On another night, rent a movie that the child chooses, watch it snuggled up together under a blanket, and talk about it. Daytime fun can include a visit to the playground or public library, making lunch together, playing any kind of game together, and helping with homework. The key here is that the child is not just hanging out while the Dad watches TV. Dad is specifically arranging his schedule around the child during this relatively brief visit, and making sure that everyone has fun together. While it's fine to handle daily tasks like washing dishes together, try not to use the child's visit for errands or household work. Use this relatively short visit to connect with the child and create a positive feeling in the household.

  4. If there are new babies or children in Dad's new life, be aware that his older child may feel like an outsider. Work to give him a special big brother role and integrate him into your family life. Be sure that he has a place of his own for his things, where he can leave them safely while he's gone.

  5. Dads often feel bad if their kids cry for Mom while at Dad's house. This is completely normal for young children. Mom is their comfort person; naturally they miss her when they're separated, even if they adore their dad. Dad has to be man enough to rise above his hurt and understand things from the child's point of view. When he does, he'll realize that he has a different role. He doesn't live with the child, so he isn't the comfort person, but he also doesn't have to worry as much about homework, discipline, teeth-brushing and all the other hard parenting work. His main job is staying connected. Sometimes, of course -- like when the child is missing Mom -- connecting means offering comfort and empathy. Dads often don't feel as comfortable in that role. They need to know that they just have to listen, and empathize, and comfort, and hold -- and not take it personally. After a good cry, being comforted by Dad, the child will usually allow himself to be distracted ("I know you really miss your Mom and feel sad. But Daddy's here, and I'll take care of you. Want to make some popcorn and rent a movie to watch together? We can snuggle on the couch.")

  6. It's important not to push kids too far out of their comfort zone while Mom's not around to reassure the child, because it puts too much pressure on the relationship with Dad. An example might be renting a movie that is too scary for the child. (This can be hard to resist. Dad wants to see the movie himself, and is bored with movies the child will choose. But Dad has to remember that this evening isn't about the movie, it's about connecting with his child. He can watch the movie he wants another time.) The scary movie can cause a meltdown at bedtime, nightmares, and then fears every time the child returns to Dad's house.

  7. It helps to establish some special routines that the child can look forward to, as well as an "identity" for this new family. Some examples: On the child's first night, always go for pizza at the same place. Or always go the public library on Saturday morning, and Dad helps the child pick out books that they'll read together later.

    What do I mean by identity? "We're a Dad and daughter who love to read together," or "We're a Dad and son who love to play basketball together," or "Our family loves Marx brothers movies," or "Our family is into jokes. We have a notebook filled with great jokes, and every week we add at least one." (Where do you get jokes? Start online or at the bookstore. Ask everyone you know for the best joke they know. Kids love this project. And any project you do with a child will solidify the relationship.)

  8. Any holiday -- even one not exactly on the day of the visit -- provides a great opportunity for ritual and connection that can be repeated every year. Making Valentines together, marching in a St. Patrick's Day parade, lighting Sabbath candles, having a July 4th picnic -- all of these offer a chance to celebrate and to begin building the shared experience that creates a family. And of course, such holiday rituals are great for all members of the family.

  9. Start a photo album for Dad and child (and maybe younger children and step-mom) to record their time together. This ritual can bonds and solidifies the relationship. Try taking a new picture every week, and adding a little journal entry of how you spent your weekend.

  10. Respect that she already has a mom, and don't try to compete. But don't undervalue yourself either. Step-moms can play a very special role by offering another listening ear and pair of arms, as well as by supporting her relationship with her dad.

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com