My new client, let's call him Jake, was unusually forthcoming in his first visit. Divorced for a little over a year, he was losing contact with his two children, ages 6 and 8. "I want to see them. I really do. But I just can't." He was mystified by his own ambivalence. He missed his kids but didn't see how he could stop the slow slide to less and less contact with his kids and more and more personal stress when he did manage it. What was going on?
This is not an unusual problem but that doesn't make it any less painful. Non-custodial parents sometimes slide out of their children's lives. The reasons for it are as varied as the parents who do it: Seeing the kids intermittently is more painful than not seeing them at all. The visitation schedule may be difficult to manage. Every pick up and drop off of the children may precipitate a fight with the ex. They get easily overwhelmed by the task of being a full-time parent, even on a part-time basis. And, sadly, there are some parents who want to erase the chapter of their lives that included a partner and children.
Whatever the reason, it is a problem to be solved, not a reason to give up. Unless there is danger or abuse, kids need contact with both parents. To give them the best chance to be emotionally healthy, parents need to reassure them that they divorced each other, not their kids. The best way to do that is loving, regular involvement.
How to Keep Both Parents Actively Involved with the kids
1. Be flexible. At the moment of the divorce, a schedule was set up to reflect the reality at that time. As life goes on and circumstances change, it may become less realistic for one or both of you. Be open to making changes. If it is too difficult for you and your ex to come to agreement, enlist the aid of a counselor or mediator.
2. When handing off the kids, keep the conversation simple and pleasant. This is not the time for either of you to air complaints or make demands. Keep the focus on making the transition feel safe for everyone. Save concerns for when you and the ex can discuss them privately.
3. If you find managing children 24/7 overwhelming, remind yourself that millions of parents have done it for millions of years. You can too. There is plenty of information on the web and in books to help you understand the needs of your kids at their various ages and stages. Seek out other parents with the same aged kids for advice. If your parents did a good job, talk to them about what to expect. Sign on for a few sessions with a child therapist.
4. If you are tempted to slide away: Face pain, guilt, regret, or anger that is getting in the way of being an involved parent. No, your kids aren't better off without you. No, you aren't better off without them. Even if you never see your kids again, you will know in your heart they are out there. Increasing the distance will only increase anxiety and guilt. See a therapist and deal. Come to terms with what it means to be a part time parent with a full time commitment. You'll all benefit.