Dear Mr. Dad: My marriage of 15 years has finally come to an end, and my wife and I have joint physical and legal custody. Because the last thing I want is for my children to become yet another case of “children of divorce,” I would appreciate it if you could guide me on how to become the best dad for them.
A: First off, it’s great that you’re committed to maintaining your relationship with your kids and staying in their lives. But it’s important that you understand that even if your divorce is one of those “it’s-for-the-best” kinds of things, your kids have already been affected by the divorce – especially if you and your wife fought a lot. It’s going to take a while to figure out exactly what those effects are.
All kids, regardless of their age, see things through the lens of “how is this going to affect me?” And nowhere is this truer than when their parents break up. In addition, many children blame themselves for the divorce. What they need to know right now – and many, many times over the foreseeable future – is that the divorce had nothing to do with them: Dad and Mom made the decision to split on their own. They also need to know that you and their mother are divorcing each other – you’re not divorcing your children. You’ll be there for them, you’ll love them, and you’ll take care of them.
Keep a watchful eye on the kids, and you’ll be able to tell how they’re coping. Here are some classic signs that they’re having trouble:
• They’re constantly coming up with schemes to bring you and your ex together.
• They’re angry, withdrawn and/or depressed
• Their behavior has changed in a big way – maybe they’re more defiant than usual, they gained or lost a lot of weight, they’re sleeping way too long or not nearly enough. During the school year, another red flag would be grades that suddenly drop.
There are a lot of things you can do to maintain your relationship with your children. First, make an extra effort to be as calm and patient as possible during this time. It’s easy to lose your temper when the kids push your buttons, but don’t. It’ll only make things worse.
Second, when you’re with them, really be there. With the kids staying with their mother half the time, every minute you have with them is a gift. So check your email, make work-related calls, and watch TV when they’re not there or after they go to bed. And speaking of things to do when they’re not there, keep your dating life far, far away from them.
Third, be a parent. A lot of parents feel guilty about what they’ve put their kids through, and to make up for it, they cut back on discipline, don’t enforce house rules, and spoil the kids rotten. Really bad idea.
Fourth, make an extra effort to be part of their life. Could you coach a sports team they’re on? Could you volunteer in their classroom? Things like that give you extra time with your kids and send a very clear message: I love you.
Fifth, play fair. Never grill your kids about what’s going on at their mother’s house, and never use them to send messages to her. Ever.
Finally – and most importantly – do everything you can to keep things civil between you and your ex. The number one predictor of how well kids will do after their parents divorce is how well those parents cooperate and get along with each other.
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