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How Divorced Parents Stay Connected with Their Kids

By Jim McGaw


 









10 Tips to Help Your Child Through Divorce

Between long hours at the office and shuttling kids to extracurricular activities, many parents struggle to find time for meaningful connections with their children. Even on weekends, when young children are off playing sports and teens are hanging out at the mall, parents can often feel out of the loop.


 


But what if you’re divorced and have no – or only partial – custody of your children? And what if you’re in conflict with your ex-spouse? For these parents, those few minutes of small talk while taxiing kids around town are extra precious. How do moms or dads who may only have their children a few hours each week or month connect with their kids in such a limited amount of time?


 


The biggest trap many noncustodial or nonresidential parents fall into is the “Disneyland parent” syndrome, says psychologist Anthony E. Wolf, author of Why Did You Have to Get a Divorce? And When Can I Get a Hamster? “One of the misconceptions is that it’s really important to schedule a lot of fun stuff,” says Wolf. “These parents need to be aware that it may be more meaningful to spend two hours driving around on a Saturday morning than to spend the same two days at ‘Fun World.’ Overscheduling can take away from the actual connection between the kids and the parent.”


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Mark Hoffmeier struggled to get joint custody of his two sons, Danny, 8, and Tommy, 6, after three “arduous” years of mediation with his ex-wife. During that time, he felt the need to prove what a good dad he was by “doing a lot of special things with the kids” – even bringing a camera along to document the fun.


 


“But with the pressure off now, I feel like I can be more natural and be myself,” Hoffmeier says. “The kids appreciate some of those mornings when you get up and say, ‘We’re not going to do anything. We’re going to sit in our jammies and play on the computer. The little things, like taking them to school, picking them up from school, taking them to Little League – that’s the best stuff. It’s as close to a normal parenting relationship that you’re going to have as a divorced parent.”


 


Importance of Flexibility


 


Overscheduling can also be a sign that a parent isn’t recognizing the needs of the child, says Judith Wallerstein, a child psychologist who’s made a career out of studying the impact of divorce on kids.


 


“Many divorced parents don’t realize that as time goes on, a child wants less time with you, and that’s good because they’re becoming independent,” says Wallerstein, author of What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce. “If the child calls up and says, ‘I want to be with my friend Mary Jane for a sleepover,’ you can’t say, ‘Oh, she’s doing it again.’ You have to grant the child changes in her life.”





Don Mathis recognizes that his 11-year-old son, Charlie, is old enough to have a say in how he spends time with Dad. Charlie lives with his mother, 350 miles away. Mathis, who has been divorced for two years, sees his son about one weekend per month and tries to resist the urge to squeeze a ton of fun into that short time frame.


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mily: Verdana;">“I make sure his bike is ready and I make sure the basketball has air in it,” Mathis says. “I leave it up to him as to whether he wants to see a movie or catch up with his cousins.”


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Extending the time you have with your child, even by just a few hours per visit, can make a big difference in your effectiveness as a parent, says pediatrician William Sammons, M.D., co-author of Don’t Divorce Your Children. “It’s important to make sure you have a real parent relationship. If you pick up your kids on Saturday morning and bring them back on Sunday night, it’s almost always going to be the ‘good-time Charlie’ routine. But if you pick up your kid late Friday and bring him back Monday morning, you have much more time to be a real parent,” Sammons says.


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mily: Verdana;">Sammons’ co-author, pediatrician Jennifer Lewis, M.D., points out another advantage of slightly extending the child’s stay. “When they get picked up, it takes some kids time to make the transition to the other parent,” says Lewis, adding that the extra time affords parents the ability to work through this awkward phase.


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mily: Verdana;">Of course, having the flexibility to change the schedule once in a while for the benefit of the kids is tougher for parents like Mathis, who doesn’t live near his ex-wife. And it’s easier said than done for divorced parents with a contentious relationship.


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In October, Hoffmeier’s brother offered him two tickets to a Major League Baseball playoff game. Hoffmeier wanted to bring his oldest son, but that meant his ex-wife would have to take the younger boy on one of her off days. “Her issue was I hadn’t talked to her about it first,” Hoffmeier says. “And she was also busy at work.” The family eventually resolved the problem during one of their occasional therapy sessions.


 


Other conflicts with his ex-wife have to do with their opposing parenting styles. He recounts the time they all went out for pizza after a Little League game. Hoffmeier gave each of his sons three dollars in quarters to play video games.


 


“My youngest ran out of quarters and wanted more,” he says. “I said ‘no,’ that was it. He banged his hand on the table, which was unacceptable. My ex started going through her purse for quarters. I said, ‘you can’t reward that kind of behavior.’ I think a lot of the time it’s tough on the kids because of the two different styles of parenting. That’s one of the reasons we got divorced.”


 


Mathis, who acknowledges having a prickly relationship with his ex-wife, says he often feels powerless to do anything but clench his teeth and ride out the storm. “We have a set of rules for Mom’s house and I have a set of rules for my house,” he says. “What she does over there goes in a box that I call ‘The Box Full of Stuff I Can’t Do a Thing About.’ That box is crammed full.”


 


Respectful Relations




The importance of maintaining a respectful and civil relationship with the custodial parent cannot be overestimated, says Wallerstein. “Despite the divorce, he has to have a relationship where the ex-wife welcomes his own relationship with the children. She has to be able to trust his parenting, that he will be responsible,” she says.



Peter Gagnon is one of the lucky ones. He lives only five miles away from his three kids: Alec, Julia and Amanda. His ex-wife, Lise Gagnon, is the primary custodian on paper because she lives in their children’s school district. In reality, however, they have 50-50 custody.


 


Better still, they have an amicable relationship, even joining each other for school functions. Lise says that makes it easier when changing schedules for the kids’ sake – and sometimes for her own.


 


“On the days that I don’t have the kids, every once in a while I’ll be melancholy and I really want to see them,” she says. “I’ll call Peter and he’ll say, ‘C’mon over.’”


 


“We can communicate easily; there’s no animosity,” echoes Peter, adding that if he and Lise disagree on how something involving the children was handled, they deal with it privately. “We don’t want a situation where the kids play one parent off the other. We always agreed that the kids would be the most important thing.”


 


Connecting When Apart


 









Learn more about
Noncustodial Rights



One of the unfortunate traits all noncustodial parents share is the joyless task of coming home to an empty house. But even then it’s possible to stay connected, and Wallerstein says today’s technology makes it easier than ever to keep the lines of communication open.


 


“E-mail is wonderful. One father we studied did math homework with his kids Monday through Friday by e-mail. Another read to his child by telephone,” says Wallerstein, adding that younger children love getting picture postcards.


 


But parents shouldn’t overdo it. “A communication plan is very important, where they literally go through some guidelines on telephone use, fax and e-mails. You need to set up a system where you respect when the calls are being made,” says Sammons, adding that if kids are interrupted during dinner or a favorite TV show, they’re more likely to be uncommunicative.


 


Peter Gagnon agrees that it’s important not to be intrusive. “Typically, I don’t call them routinely. I respect the time that they’re with Lise, but it’s not a hands-off thing,” he says.



Making an effort to maintain a parent-school connection also sends a strong signal to your children that you’re still interested in what they’re doing academically, says Lewis. “Try and get the school newsletter or the newspaper,” she says. “Stay in touch with the sports teams: ‘Oh, I see the football team won this week. Who do they play next?’ That makes you a little more in touch with the real world.”


 


Mathis is signed up to receive newsletters or phone calls from his son’s school. “I have the e-mail to his principal in school,” he says. “It’s a challenge enough to stay involved in his life, but I’m determined to remain involved in his academic life as well.”


 




One of the unfortunate traits all noncustodial parents share is the joyless task of coming home to an empty house. But even then it&r

Talking About Your Absence


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Besides suffering their own little heartbreaks when separated from their kids, noncustodial parents must occasionally explain their absence to younger children.


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="MsoNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“Sometimes the hardest thing for my youngest was that he never got a whole lot of time with us as a family and it’s hard for him to understand that we’ll never be that way,” says Hoffmeier. “I can see that he resents it.”


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="MsoNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Wolf urges parents not to offer excuses. “Don’t say, ‘I live far away and it takes time to get there,’ or, ‘I wanted more time, but the courts wouldn’t give it to me.’ Say, ‘I miss you, too, but this is what we agreed on and this is what we’re going to do.’ It recognizes that they don’t like it, but it doesn’t open up all these other issues that they don’t need to get into.”


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="MsoNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">It’s better for parents to put their children at ease about their own well-being, Wallerstein adds. “Show the child that you’re all right and that you’re not suffering. Kids worry about these things. They’ll say, ‘Mommy takes care of me, so who takes care of Daddy?’”


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="MsoNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Equal Stakes


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="MsoNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Whatever the custody arrangement, both parents deal with many of the same issues involving their children. Likewise, both parents still have an equal stake in raising them, no matter how infrequent one may be involved in their day-to-day lives.




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oNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“Whether you get labeled residential, nonresidential or noncustodial, you can play a very significant role in your children’s lives,” says Sammons.


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oNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Mathis, who has written numerous poems about his desire to see his son more, scoffs when he hears the term “visitation,” commonly used when a child goes to see his noncustodial parent.


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oNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“Visitation is what you do at a funeral,” he says. “My son does not visit; he lives with me in my heart.”


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oNormal" style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt; tab-stops: .5in 1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in">Don’t Divorce Your Children, by Jennifer M. Lewis and Williams A. H. Sammons, McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 1999. Stressing the need for parents to stay involved in their kids’ lives, these two pediatricians offer advice on telling children about an impending divorce, visitation, helping kids adjust and the special problems of adolescents.




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What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce
, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Hyperion, 2003. The authors draw on more than 30 years of research to provide advice to parents facing divorce or coping with its aftermath.


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Why Did You Have to Get a Divorce? And When Can I Get a Hamster?
by Anthony E. Wolf; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1998. The author argues that divorce does not have to do long-term damage to a child. He shows parents how to steer children through the pain and the complex feelings of divorce.


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Web Sites


GIN: 0in 0in 0pt; tab-stops: .5in 1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in">Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents Rightswww.ancpr.org  – This nonprofit group, which advocates for shared custody arrangements, answers questions and offers resources on child support, custody and visitation.


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Children and Divorcewww.childrenanddivorce.com  – This site, maintained by pediatricians Jennifer Lewis and William Sammons, offers resources and advice for divorced parents trying to put their children first.





Divorce.comwww.divorce.com  – Provides access to divorce packages, divorce forms, completion services, free law summaries and FAQs for each state.



KidsNCommon.comwww.kidsncommon.com  – Helps divorced parents more effectively organize their lives so that they can focus on their children.


 


Related Reading: 10 tips to help your child through divorce


Jim McGaw is a freelance writer and the father of two sons.


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