Dear Child Psychologist,
I am concerned that my boyfriend doesn't spend enough time with his children. At times we have discussions about this topic, and he states that they don't like him, and that they are always crying for their mothers. I have experienced such an instance, with his youngest child. However, after I had a motherly like discussion with his child the little boy was ok. We were all just fine, and the young boy even stayed the night without any discomfort.
I explained to my boyfriend, that maybe the children are use to their mother's ways of handling different situations. They spend most of their time with their mothers, and now when it's time to spend time with you, instead of that nurturing like feel you enforce another kind of feel from a male's perspective.
I told him when I was younger my dad was considered the "no" person and my mom was the "yes" person. Of course we were more close to mom than dad. However, he didn't give up on us. As we got older we learned that all of his reasons for being the "no" person was to train us to be the respectful, successful, caring people we are today. I told him the more time he spends with them -- hopefully doing more fun things maybe they will create a stronger bond with him.
Can you help with this dilemma?
How wonderful for your boyfriend, and for his kids, that you're there to encourage him. Sounds to me like you're on exactly the right track. This is a very common situation for Dads who don't live with their kids. The relationship between them doesn't come as naturally as when you live together.
The Dad doesn't know his kids as well, and the kids don't feel as close to him. They aren't as comfortable at his place as they are at home. Sensing their discomfort, the Dad feels more insecure and simply doesn't 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 -- the 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.
The first step is probably for you and your boyfriend to have a discussion about this. Usually Dads need to get clear that they are committed to staying in their kids' lives as a good father. Then they need encouragement that they can actually connect with their kids. They need to know that of course their kids don't feel as comfortable with them -- but that can be overcome if the Dad is willing to do the work to build a good relationship with them.
Until the relationship feels solid, the Dad needs to focus on connection, not on discipline. No lecturing. Set limits of course, as necessary, but with understanding. Remember that the rules might be different at Mom's house, and also that kids behave worse if they feel worse. Give them some slack.
Make the time with Dad special. That doesn't mean he has to spend 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 with a child. Then snuggle up for a bedtime story and tuck them in.
On another night, rent a movie that the child chooses, watch it snuggled up with them, and talk about it (not lecturing about Dad's view of the movie, but connecting about the experience of watching it that you've shared). Daytime fun can include a visit to the playground or public library, making lunch together, playing any kind of game together, helping with homework.
The key here is that the child is not just hanging out while the Dad lives his usual life, watches TV, etc. The Dad is specifically arranging his schedule around the child during this relatively brief visit.
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. They also miss their own home, toys, bed, etc. This is not a reflection on the Dad; they can adore him and still miss their mom.
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 will 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.
He doesn't even have to worry about daily tasks like getting the laundry done while the child is there, since he has lots of other times to take care of those tasks. His only job during that short visit is to connect with his child, and usually that is best done by having fun together, which is the dessert of parenting.
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.")
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. The 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.
It helps if the Dad can begin to establish some special routines that the child can look forward to, as well as an "identity" for this "family" that only lives together part time. Some examples: On the child's first night, they always go for pizza at the same place. Or they always go the public library on Saturday when they get to spend the weekend together, and the Dad helps the child pick out books that they'll read later. (Leave the books at Dad's house so they don't get lost.)
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? That's another post, but start online or at the bookstore. Ask everyone you know for the best joke they know. Kids love this project. And any project with a child will solidify the relationship.)
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 create family.
Finally, a photo album that the Dad and child create together, that records their fun times (and ordinary times), can provide a ritual (look at it every week and add a new photo) that bonds and solidifies the relationship.
There's lots more on my website about the parent-child relationship. Start on the Home page, with:
What's Connection Parenting? Q and A
Empathy: What it isn't, What it is
Reconnecting With Your Child
Traditions Strengthen Families
Building a Great Relationship with Your Kids
The emphasis here needs to be on the father-child relationship, but if a man has a girlfriend who can also nurture the child he is lucky indeed. Together, they can focus on the child and create a fun family feel. Sounds to me like you're playing a really crucial role in helping your boyfriend.
I wish all of you luck and love.
-- Dr. Laura Markham, PhD