Dan sat on the couch visibly upset. His body was tense, and it looked like he was at a point of yelling or crying.
“My son and I used to be attached at the hip. Anywhere I went he went. Now, I can’t even get him to take out the trash without him yelling at me for ruining his life or accusing me of being mean or angry. I am angry! I have done nothing to him, or her for that matter. She left me and yet I am the bad guy, and she is definitely turning him against me. I asked to take him to my parents’ house for the Super Bowl and you would have thought I suggested I take him to Mexico so we could get matching tattoos. I have no one on my side. Everyone assumes I created this entire mess. The courts don’t even get me started on the courts! When is someone going to listen to me? To be on my side. To not assume, just because I am a man, I am a heartless, cheating jerk. I am so tired; I just want to have a good relationship with my son.
As a therapist, specifically one who deals with fathers going through divorce, I hear a lot of frustrated comments from men who are trying to parent but feel they do not have any support. These dads say they are trying their best but fear they will never win their child’s heart because their child’s mother has poisoned their mind and anything they say is pointless. This is especially difficult for men who are already away a lot of the time for work.
This may be true.
The reality of the situation, however, is that dads often play a role in the frustration their children experience. This, in turn, makes things difficult for all involved without them intending to do so. One of the main things a divorcing parent needs to realize is that his child did not choose the situation. Children are processing many emotions and at times, these may erupt in frustrating ways for a parent.
When a dad is perceived as the villain, he often—as is to be expected—takes it very personally. It does feel like a personal affront. His child, his flesh and blood, has chosen to take the side of the partner he is no longer with and “hate him.” This creates tension and anger in the parent—child relationship.
This reality sucks.
Whether you were married, living together, or in a committed relationship with your partner, parenting under the same roof provides boundaries and structure that are hard to maintain once separated. The key word is “hard” to maintain, not impossible. There are hurt feelings, pain, and anger that cloud the judgment on both sides. The stability that was provided to your child when you were under one roof is now gone. While it may be hard, your main goal should be to surround yourself with support from those who love and care for you.
Here are some things to remember and strategies to put into place as you develop a safe, supportive environment for your children.
- Your house needs to be stable in all aspects and mimic your partners schedule as much as is possible if it is healthy. Transition is hard no matter what situation; changing households is no different. Co-parenting is the healthiest way to move forward, but it is not always possible. If it is possible and both of you agree to a healthy stable schedule, that same schedule should be maintained at both households. Rules should be agreed upon and carried over. If, the partner is not willing, then it is your duty to make a stable schedule, guidelines, and expectations when they are at your house. Once these have been established, they need to be firm and not movable. Children crave routine and in an unstable situation needs someone who will say “No, this is how it is going to be.”
- Talk to your ex civilly and talk about your ex respectively. Children repeat everything and pick up on anger easily. If you say things about your ex to them, they will pick up on your attitude and will either mirror it or take it to your partner who now has ammo. It is a terrible thought to process; how you used to talk and parent your child will now be put under a microscope and possibly used by the other side to show why you should have less time with your child. Regardless, either situation is not a healthy or desirable outcome for a young child.
- Recognize the extreme emotions involved in your situation and give your child grace. There have been many times I have heard, “They are doing this on purpose!” While this may be true, they are children and are responding to an extreme situation the best they know how. They are pushing your buttons because they are worried, scared, or mad; the list is endless. This is where boundaries and rules come into place. Enforcing the rules are important, with the understanding your child is reacting to a scary situation, and you love them. Love and grace need to be at the forefront of any interaction you have with your child during and after a divorce.
Divorce is a transition.
It can be a difficult one, but it is an event that has a beginning and end. The effects from the divorce however can stay with your child for a long time. You are hurt, angry, and frustrated, and now you have to also deal with a child who is going through the same feelings or worse. Patience is key and understanding that they need you is going to be an important tool to getting through without too much scaring.
Drew Dilisio is the Community Support Specialist and Counselor at Good Dads. He is a recent graduate of Evangel University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, a husband, and a father. He can be reached for questions or comment [email protected]