If you are a single dad who does not have primary custody of your kids, or you’ve had to move far away from your children since the divorce, it can be difficult to maintain the close relationship that you had prior to the divorce.
As a child psychologist, I have helped many non-custodial divorced dads maintain a close relationship with their kids, so I know it can be successfully done. As a single mom to two teenagers myself, I also have first-hand knowledge of what it takes to support my kids’ dad in maintaining a close bond with our children.
Psychological research documents over and over again the importance of a close father-child bond. Kids who grow up with a good relationship with their father tend to do better emotionally, academically, and socially. Also, children who have a close bond with their father during adolescence tend to experience a closer and more fulfilling relationship with their future spouse.
So, you know that maintaining a good relationship with your kids is important, but perhaps life has thrown you some curveballs that have prevented you from working on your relationship with your children. Maybe your ex doesn’t make scheduling visitation with the kids very easy, or the court gave your ex most of the visitation rights. It could be that you’ve had to move far away from your kids because of your job or a new spouse.
I get it. Life puts up roadblocks to the things that we value most. But, that doesn’t mean that we should give up on our kids–it just means that we have to figure out how to work around these roadblocks. Your kids are worth it.
Your summer visitation with your kids provides the perfect opportunity to work on improving your relationship with your them, and the seven tips that I discuss below will help you meet this objective. These are the tips that I give to my in-person clients. I also use these skills in my personal life to support my ex-husband’s relationship with our kids.
The Seven Tips
1. Prioritize your time during the visit. Make sure that you are emotionally and physically present for your kids during their visit. If you can’t take some vacation days from work, then try to schedule your job to where you can spend as much time as possible with your kids. Re-schedule unimportant social activities and make a point to get your kids together with your extended family, if this is a positive relationship for your kids.
2. Get to know them first and then they will be interested to get to know you. I have seen too many well-meaning divorced parents make the mistake of turning the summer visit into a time of teaching their kids all about them. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. Kids want you to get to know them first. Once your kids feel like you have invested enough time and emotional energy in being interested in them will you be able to share your life history with them.
3. Immerse yourself in your kids’ interests and activities. By taking the time to learn all about your kids’ interests and activities, you show them that they matter to you. Even if you aren’t all that interested in One Direction or Star Wars (ok – those are my kids’ interests), just the fact that you are attempting to get to know them communicates that your relationship with them is important to you.
4. Don’t force a close or special feeling –let this happen naturally. Again, I have seen too many well-meaning parents try to force a good parent-child relationship to develop overnight. Given enough time and consistent warmth between you and your child, this will eventually happen. If your child is resistant at first, do not take it personally. Instead, provide daily warm and loving interactions with your child and your relationship will improve slowly over time.
5. Prepare yourself that your kids might need to express some uncomfortable emotions before you can move on. If you have been absent from your kids’ lives for a period of time, your children will need to tell you how this made them feel in order for them to move on and develop a new relationship with you. If you value a good relationship with them, then listen to what they have to say without explaining your actions. Apologize to them. This is what they need to hear in order to form a new relationship with you.
6. Don’t get pressured into being the “entertainment dad.” Have some down time with your kids too–that is where you really get to know them. You definitely want to plan some fun activities during their visit as a way to make fun memories, but part of the bonding experience is getting to know your kids during other times like watching TV together, preparing and eating meals together, or taking a walk with each other in the evenings. These types of relaxed times between parent and child encourages kids to open up and talk about their lives.
7. Don’t bad-mouth their mom–show them the higher road. Most importantly, create a safe place for your kids where they can be themselves. If they think that any mention of their mom (or her new boyfriend/husband) will be met with harsh words from you, then they won’t open up and talk to you. What’s more important to you–communicating to your kids that their mother is a sorry excuse for a human being, or getting to know your children on a more personal level? Be the father your kids need you to be by allowing them the space to talk about their lives without having to worry about your feeling towards their mother.
These tips will work whether you have two weeks or two months to spend with your kids this summer. Don’t expect them to be an overnight cure to a bad relationship with your children, but sometimes it’s just a start.
Relationships, especially ones that have been damaged, need time to heal. By implementing the above tips and using them each time you see your kids, you will see slow, yet steady progress in creating a close and positive relationship with your children.
Photo: Flickr/ Christopher Lucka