Stress and Children’s Behaviour

by John Hoffman

Why do kids behave badly? Because they don’t know any better? Because their parents don’t set limits? Because some kids are born with a bit of devil in them?

I’ve got another reason for you. Stress.

I won’t claim that stress is always the cause of children’s misbehaviour. But it’s a bigger cause than many people think.  Think about your behaviour when you’re stressed out. If you’re anything like me you’re probably less patient, more cranky and you’re judgment isn’t as good.

Now apply that to a young child whose inner system for dealing with stress is not fully developed. It’s a recipe for “bad” behaviour and meltdowns. Mind you I don’t consider tantrums (meltdowns) to be “bad” behaviour. Tantrums are usually a stress response.

Dealing with stress burns up our energy – thinking energy, emotional energy, even physical energy. When children have to burn their energy coping with stress, they don’t have much energy left over to help them control their behaviour, deal with disappointments, wait their turn or even listen to Dad’s wise words of discipline.

Let me clarify what I mean by stress. We often think of stress as a response to a threat or very tough situation. Running away from an attacker. Getting fired from your job. Working hard to meet a tight deadline. Going through a divorce or the death of a loved one. Poverty.

Yes, those are all major stressors. But smaller, everyday experiences and situations can be stressful too, especially for kids. I’m talking about things like having to wait, being teased by your older brother, or having to go into a room full of people you don’t know. Two classic stressors for children are being tired and hungry. Matt Horseman*, a father of four, understands this . That’s why he and his wife always take food with them when they take their kids out. “We always pack granola bars when we go out as a family,” he says. “Sometimes one of the kids will be freaking out and if we can get a bit of food into them, they calm down a bit and they’re much better able to deal with whatever is bothering them.” Exactly. I saw this happen numerous times with my own kids when they were young.

Sometimes, Horseman’s oldest son, Jacob*, who has always been more emotionally reactive than his siblings, comes home from a sleepover just exhausted. If you have kids at the sleepover stage (perhaps “wakeover” is more accurate) you’ll know what Matt’s talking about. Anyway, when Jacob is that tired, well, he’s basically a mess. He’s cranky and snappy with his siblings and parents and all the teeny tiny stresses of normal family life become magnified. “If I can’t get Jacob to take a nap, I try to get him to take a break – like go up to his room and play with Lego for awhile,” says Horseman.

That’s not a punishment. That’s helping Jacob with his stress in two ways. It gets him away from all the little hassles that he’s not handling very well at the moment. Number two, playing quietly by himself gives Jacob some down time in an undemanding situation. That allows him to build his energy build back up so he can face the world again.  A key point here is that Jacob needs his dad’s (or mom’s) help with this. He hasn’t yet learned to recognize when he’s stressed out or low on energy and what he can do to reduce his stress and get his energy back. But with the kind of help his Dad is providing, he will learn eventually.

Like I said, stress is not the only cause of chidren’s misbehaviour. But, the next time you’re dealing with a “situation,” before you reach into your bag of discipline tricks try to tune into your child’s stress and help him or her deal with it.  If you deal with the stress first, your discipline will work better.

I’m not saying you should help your child avoid all possible stressors. No parent can do that. Besides, stress is part of life and kids need to experience some in order to learn how to manage it. Some kind of stress are actually good for us.

However, if you can get good at figuring out when your children are stressed and, then reducing the stress or helping them cope, you won’t have to do as much discipline. That’s because unstressed children have more energy to control themselves be patient, listen and do all the other positive things we’d like to see them too.

(*name changed to respect the privacy of his son)

Divorce Reform Can Meet the Best Interest of the Child . . . and Both Parents

by John Hoffman

Something has happened that I thought I’d never live to see. Fathers’ divorce rights activists and their opponents agreed on how to change divorce laws.

This happened in Minnesota. But it is truly revolutionary. If it happened there it could happen in Canada too.

Anyone who pays attention to efforts to reform divorce laws knows what can of worms that can be. Fathers’ groups have argued for years that too many men are cut out of the lives of their children because of a system and attitudes that are biased against fathers.  Their answer is that courts should presume that parenting time should be shared equally between mothers and fathers after divorce.

On the other hand, some women’s groups and legal professionals have fought this idea tooth and nail. They say that, in high conflict cases, shared parenting exposes children to harmful conflict and makes it easier for abusive men to keep harassing their ex-spouses.

Then, of course, there is the whole issue of what’s in a child’s best interests. Father’s groups say what’s best for kids is to have relationships with both of their parents. Others counter that living primarily with one parent is more stable and safe for children.

I’m over simplifying this debate. But I can’t get into all of it. The point is that the conflict between these camps has derailed some attempts to reform divorce laws in Canada. I’ve spoken to people who attended hearings of Canada’s Joint Senate and House of Commons Committee on Custody and Access in 1998. There was hostility, mistrust and even name-calling between opposing groups.  Those hearings proposed some changes, but they never came into law. That’s partly because politicians know that divorce reform is such a political hot potato.

In spite of this conflict, however, some improvements have been made in the way we do divorce. In fact, most divorce agreements and parenting plans are made outside of court.  And many parents agree to share parenting fairly equally. The legal process has changed in ways that help reduce, or at least, not add to, conflict between parents.  But still there was this sticking point about what fathers’ groups call a legal presumption of shared parenting, an idea that seems to scare some women’s groups half to death.

Well, Minnesota found a way to work it out using an approach called Convergent Facilitation. They actually got a diverse group of stakeholders, including some bitter adversaries, to agree on how to reform and improve divorce laws. Some of them wouldn’t even ride in the same elevator together. But they managed to agree on proposals that led to real, productive changes in Minnesota’s divorce laws.  These changes won’t solve all child custody and access problems. Nothing will. But still, these are innovative changes that Canadian provinces can learn from.

One great thing the Minnesotans did was set out some criteria for determining the best interests of the child. And they acknowledged that part of that was a good relationship with both parents whenever possible. Here’s direct quote from one clause of the new law: “The court shall consider that it is in the best interests of the child to promote the child’s healthy growth and development through safe, stable, nurturing relationships between a child and both parents”  (italics mine).

Even though that’s a statement that almost everyone would agree on, it has been seemingly impossible to get it into a divorce law. And that’s largely because of the history of hostility and mistrust between opposing sides in the divorce debate.

The new law even mentions a presumption of shared parenting. That might make it sound like the fathers’ groups won. Except, they didn’t “win.” It’s just that they and their opponents were able to agree on principles they could all live with. That includes protecting women and children from abusive men, putting the needs of children ahead of the rights of parents and more.

I don’t have room to go into all the law’s details.  I mostly want to spread the word that it is possible to get opponents to agree on helpful changes to divorce laws.

Unfortunately almost nobody I’ve talked to in Canada has heard about these arguably historic changes in Minnesota’s divorce laws,

Well, you’re hearing about it now. If you are interested in divorce reform I urge you to learn more about what they did in Minnesota and how they did it. And spread the word. You can read more about the process here and one lawyer’s opinion of what the changes mean here.

School Days Are Here Again

by Barry Lillie

A new school year often presents change upon change for newly separating and separated families. What was once viewed as joyful changes in an intact family are now challenges that make parenting more complicated e.g. a family moves to a new home in a new school district? For our children of every age change has serious implications- making new friends/losing old friends; etc.

Kids ‘n’ Dad believes in limiting surprises in the school year that may lead to unwanted parenting conflict that impacts your children. The school year is an opportunity for separating parents to restore some order/predictability and calm to their children’s lives and to their own lives. This is part of what I call a process toward family renewal in an ever evolving form.

The new school year may be especially difficult emotionally for newly separating families. In many ways it can be like the first Christmas with its emotional connections, good memories and now the loneliness of being a parent absent from the excitement of the actual event. It is a clarifying moment for everyone that family life has changed…forever.

It is also an expensive time with new activities beginning and schools often asking for additional fees for this or that. Many of our parents continue to face economic difficulties that are part of the current economic environment. Separated families rarely have enough income to support a dad’s home and a mom’s home and it often comes down to hard choices about your children’s activities in the upcoming year.

The Globe and Mail (Facts and Arguments) recently published a letter by a young woman who wrote about the aloneness of being a child of divorce. As hard as she tried she grew up feeling like an outsider in her parents’ homes and later in their subsequent families. Her letter stopped me in my tracks. I though about my own children and the children of our clients who are struggling with that same aloneness and lack of belonging. My point is that doing this school thing right is part of overcoming what happened to this young woman as she grew up. As parents responsible for the separation we have a responsibility to ensure that our children feel included in each home and that each home is participating in their daily life. School is an integral part of that life.

The following is a short list of ideas to consider for the upcoming school year. Compile a personal list for your family. Check mark each of the steps from the list below that you did during the last school year. Consider what steps that you intend to take to do things even better in 2015-16.

  • Both parents must together or independently establish a relationship with their child’s teachers and school. If the separation is new then a school visit is an imperative. The school is going to be a main source of information re: your child’s transition from an intact family.
  • Plan to attend school activities. Co-operate to ensure that one or both of you are available for every activity. Include supervising on a school trip as a volunteer. Establish a schedule to share your children’s activities. If the ‘together’ thing is too difficult then work out parallel arrangement that work..
  • MEET THE TEACHER NIGHT IS COMING UP! Ensure that you attend the ‘meet the teacher’ and all other parents’ nights, especially report card meetings. Do not count on the other parent to be the conveyor of information. If need be give the school postage prepaid envelopes with your mailing address for your child’s Report Card, newsletters, etc. Schools are RARELY pro-active in ensuring that BOTH PARENTS receive all info. I know many separated parents who have never seen their child’s report card with all the valuable info on their child.
  • If your child’s teacher is hesitant to provide duplicate material, be courteous but also insistent and follow through. Each parent needs to be in a position to help their child with their homework, etc. Many fathers who often have less than 40% parenting time may prefer only to do ‘fun’ activities. You can do both; you should do both.
  • Make sure that you are up-to-date on your child’s school friends. If your child (ren) are of an age suitable to have a friend sleep over then these school friends form a likely pool of candidates. Your involvement in your child’s school activities allows you to meet other parents and create a comfort level for them and the children.
  • Attend extracurricular activities that are outside the school- e.g. dance, hockey, and ringette. RESPECT the other parent on those nights that are their access nights. Do not make participation by both parents a problem. Set a good example for your children.
  • Plan out a co-operative parenting schedule. Respect it! Abide by it! The schedule is the LAW UNLESS BOTH PARENTS AGREE TO A CHANGE! YOU CANNOT SIMPLY DEMAND A CHANGE!
  • If changes need to be made then consider a process to make that happen. It could be done through a mediator if you are unable to make it happen cooperatively.
  • Expenses need to be talked through and not simply a bill handed over with a demand. Dads in many cases need to know that school aged children cost money and that these expenses may be separate from the question of access and child support payments. Primary care parents need to know that denying access damages your children and is against the law.
  • mentioned last year my concern re: the use of Facebook, Twitter, etc. to take verbal shots at a former partner. These concerns remain an alarming and disturbing development. These verbal potshots are in reality not only an attack on your child’s other parent but also upon your child. They are simply unproductive for everyone. This is absolutely unacceptable! It is embarrassing/hurtful to your child and is making public what is essentially a private family matter.  Another aspect of the use of the social media is the potential misuse and risk to our children. If we as the parents are hooked on Facebook and messaging, why wouldn’t we expect our children to model themselves in the same way? The problem is that most children are without the life experiences that we bring to social networking. This is particularly a problem for children in the tween age bracket. In separated families children of this age may rely on these friends even more and also have more time alone, etc. As such the good aspect of a child cell phone (safety, ready availability) may become lost to the negative side (vulnerability and obsession). Go on line, educate yourself on the risks to your adolescent and develop a strategy that works for your family.
  • If you are newly separated don’t be afraid to initiate a meeting(s) as necessary with a key teacher/mentor/coach to your child. They can watch over your child and encourage participation and friendships.
  • Finally, if you have a new partner during the school year, take it slow and easy. Understand possible reactions of your child; deal with your former partner in a mature, honest and sensitive manner. Read up on possible reactions. Ask your new partner to be patient as you try to work out the new family dynamics. This can be a tricky dynamic for a new partner who can feel blocked out from being an involved step parent i.e. needed to do only the tough stuff of helping to build a new family home- not quite good enough to play a full role.
  • PA Days offer an opportunity for additional parenting time for some parents and should be included in Parenting Plans. Also cooperating parents can reduce before and/or after school costs by sharing in providing care to their child. In addition grandparents – especially paternal grandparents who may now have reduced time with grandchildren-can also be included in school year planning. They provide a sense of family belonging to grandchildren who often grow up with an imbalance in their connection to both sides of their family; children also gain and the additional awareness of their own identity from this expanded access to their family.
  • FINALLY acknowledge the other parent’s flexibility. Acknowledge each other’s flexibility. Your children will notice positive change in improved interactions between their parents.

I used to say that parenting through a separation is a marathon, not a sprint. I have adapted my thinking- separation is a series of sprints that eventually add up to a marathon. Just when you think there is a comfortable pattern, life gets in the way. Life in the way can be a remarriage or a move or a job loss/ financial crisis or a child in crisis or…. Every separated family in every school year is likely to face a difficult change(s) that may trigger a crisis. The challenge/test is to figure out a process to accommodate the crisis. The degree of crisis varies; but flexibility and resiliency by both parents is required in order to achieve the desired objective of calm and a new normalcy.

As separated parents we have an obligation to find solutions to those ‘life gets in the way’ happenings. The school year is an opportunity for parents to model for their child a cooperative relationship that demonstrates the parents’ love for their child- a love that survive all challenges on life’s uneven journey.

Barry Lillie

2013 Fernand Lozier Award of Excellence in Father Involvement

Executive Director

Kids & Dad Shared Support

900 Guelph Street, Ste 208

Kitchener, ON N2M 5Z6

The Couple Relationship: Where does baby fit?

by John Hoffman

I’ve said this before, but I keep saying it because it’s important. One of the single most important factors that affects fathering is the father’s relationship with his partner. Guys who have a good relationship with their partners tend to be more involved, happier and more effective as parents. Research has proven this eight ways to Sunday. What’s interesting is that the reverse is not true to anywhere near the same extent. Obviously, it’s better for Mom to have a good relationship with Dad than a poor one, but the partner relationship does not affect mothering as much as it affects fathering.

Let’s talk about early parenthood because it is a critical time for relationships. Seattle psychologist John Gottman has done a lot of research on heterosexual marriages and what happens to relationships after a baby is born. He says most couples experience a drop in intimacy and marriage quality after the first baby is born. No surprise there. The shocker is that, according to Gottman’s research, about one in four of American couples split up within the five years following a baby ’s birth.

So, a lot of marriage therapists advise parents to take care of their partner relationship after the baby is born. Good advice. Where some marriage advice-givers lose me, however, is that they have a way of trying to put the parent-baby relationship and the mom-dad relationship in separate boxes. They tell parents to have date nights and special Dad-Mom time, away from the baby. Fair enough. Every parent needs (and wants) couple time.  My point is that you can’t really separate the dad-mom relationship and the parent-baby relationships. They are part of each other. So, in early parenthood, if you can only build your relationship by getting away from the baby… Well, I don’t think you have much to work with.  That’s why I say new parents should be advised to connect through the baby, not just away from the baby.  That means sharing and enjoying the experience of parenting together.

Lots of parents do this without being told, of course. Donald Fraser, whose first child Clara is nine-months old, says he and his wife Krista do pretty much everything with Clara.  “We’ve tried to maintain a lot of the activities and outings we enjoyed before Clara was born,” says Fraser. “We just take her with us now. We take her on hikes, to music festivals, to the Pan Am Games. We even took her camping with us. And next summer we’ll probably take her on a canoe trip.” In other words, Clara has become a part of the shared experiences that are a big part of Donald and Krista’s relationship.

Obviously having wee Clara in tow is extra work. But Donald and Krista share that work. And having Clara along often enhances the experience. “Recently we were hiking through the woods and I had Clara in the backpack,” Fraser says. “The dappled sunlight on the trees caught her attention and she threw her head back and just stared with this delighted expression on her face. We’d seen the forest lots of times, but it was new and all encompassing to her. That made the walk more fun.”

There are lots of other ways to share the experience of parenting of course. It can be working together on the tasks of caring for your baby. Or it can be simply sitting on the floor together and watching all the cute fascinating little things your baby does. But my point is that the baby can bring you together, not just come between you. Sharing and enjoying the experience together will be good for your relationship and it will also help you be the good father I know you want to be.

Dad Central Ontario’s Dads! Renovate Your Relationship offers 14 tools to help fathers stay connected to their partners.

Adoption Love: One Dad’s Story

by John Hoffman

In all the varied public discussion of fatherhood I’ve heard and read about over the years there is one topic I’ve heard very little about.  Adoption.

Adoption is a normal human experience. It’s been happening throughout history. We do hear about adoption. But the stories we hear are mostly about international adoptions, or adoptees being reunited with (or looking for) birth parents. We don’t hear much about everyday reality of connecting with and raising an adopted child. And especially, we don’t hear about fathers.

I’ve always wondered what it would like, as a father, to connect with a child who had existed and was cared for by someone outside of your family before you knew him. I can imagine that in some ways it might be similar to bonding with a birth child, but different in other ways. For one thing, adoption might reduce some of the biological head start that mothers usually get in parenting. But the thing I’m most curious about is, what is it like to meet that child for the first time, this child you really want to love, but who wasn’t yours to begin with?

There must be many different answers to that question because the experiences of adoptive families are so diverse.  So all I can really do here is give you a little window into that world through the experience of one dad.

Meet Mike, a 48-year-old father of two from Mississauga, Ontario. While I’m sure every adoption story is compelling, I find Mike’s particularly interesting. For one thing, almost overnight, he and his wife Lisa went from having given up on the idea of adoption to welcoming a 10 month-old baby into their home. It’s also interesting that Mike is the one who took the parental leave after the adoption.

“We had always wanted to have two children,” he says. “But after the birth of our son, it wasn’t possible to have another biological child. We registered with the Children’s Aid. They did an extensive home study. We did the classes for adoptive parents and went on a waiting list. But after three years of waiting, and knowing that we were getting older and that very few babies become available, we gave up our dream of adopting. We started selling the baby clothes and gear that we had been saving and began to plan our lives around being a one-child family.”

Then, out of the blue one day last December, Mike gets a call at work from their Children’s Aid worker.  A ten-month-old girl unexpectedly needed a home and Mike and Lisa were the top – well, the only – candidates to become her parents. Little Katie* was being fostered by an older woman who had suffered an injury and was no longer in a position to care for a baby. A few days later Mike and Lisa met with Children’s Aid staff to get the baby’s medical report and other background information.  A couple of days after that Mike and Lisa found themselves walking into the foster mom’s home to meet Katie for the first time.

Mike describes the scene.

“On one hand I went in there thinking this was pretty much a done deal – that we would adopt her. But on the other hand I was thinking, What are we getting ourselves into? Four days ago we had been planning our life without another child.  This was a little bit like going from the shallow end to the deep end really fast. We walked in and Katie was sitting on the living room floor. I saw this little chunky, sort of slobbery baby (She had a cold at the time.). But she was cute and looked happy and  healthy. Her foster mom was a textbook kindly grandmother.”

What was it like to hold her for the first time?

“It was different from meeting Jacob. He was born by c-section. I was the first one to hold him because Lisa was out of commission for a few minutes after the birth.  It was an overwhelming feeling to finally hold him after preparing for his arrival for so long. Holding Katie for the first time was different. I was a little anxious. I had experience as a father. I knew what to do. But I was also thinking, ‘Wow! Three days ago I wasn’t expecting to be doing this.’ But this is for real.”

Adoptions take place in stages. There were some scheduled visits with the foster mom and meetings with Children’s Aid staff. Then a week after first meeting Katie – on Boxing Day as it happened – Mike and Lisa took her home for an overnight visit.

“She seemed really happy to be at our house. When she saw our dog she squealed with delight and before long she was on the floor with Jacob. He was showing her a robot he got for Christmas. They took to each other immediately. It felt very comfortable. She slept well that night and it all really went well.”

Then on New Year’s Eve, just 16 days after that unexpected phone call, Katie came to her new home for good.  Mike had to scramble to arrange to go on parental leave. But overall the adjustment was not as jarring as you might think.

“The parenting instincts kick in. We’d looked after a baby before. We know how to do it. Really, after a few days, it felt like she’d always been with us and it still feels like that.”

Mike and Lisa, who was an adopted child herself, have very definite views about adoption. For one thing they don’t think it’s anything to hide.  “There’s no shame in adoption,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a secret. But you also have to be aware that while adoption is a happy story, it’s also always a story about loss. That’s something we have to be aware of.”

One thing Mike and Lisa are doing, perhaps to ease part of Katie’s experience of loss, is to maintain a relationship with the foster mother. “We’ve had her over for dinner a few times. Our son even calls her Nanna Barb*.  Katie is always happy to see her. But we’re the ones she comes to for comfort now. We don’t know exactly where the relationship will go, but we’re happy to keep her in the picture for now.  Kids need as much love as they can get.”

Too right! I think it’s awesome that people like Mike and Lisa, and so many others, are able to welcome non-biological children into their lives. What lucky kids to find these parents who are ready to care for them and love them. I am also very glad that our society has progressed to the point where families now have the flexibility for either parent to take parental leave or work outside the home according to what the family needs. That’s a good thing for fathers, mothers and kids.

Thank you Mike, for sharing your story and giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to a new adoptive dad.

*Children’s and foster mother’s names changed at the family’s request

Gender Equity in Parenting?

by John Hoffman

I believe strongly in the ideal of gender equity. That includes fathers being more involved in child care and mothers being able to do more work outside the home. Lots of people agree, of course. Researchers have been tracking the trends for many years.  Cool.

But I have a pet peeve about the spin that tends to get put on comparisons of how much time dads and moms spend doing child care and housework. For years, the story has been, “Dads are doing more, but it’s still not enough.” Here’s a recent headline from the Washington Post. “Once the baby comes, moms do more dads do less.” A 2013 report out of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College, stated that while two-thirds of fathers believe that partners should share childcare equally only 30 percent were actually doing it.

The media spin about mothers trying to catch up to fathers in the world of paid does not portray moms as “doing less.” It is more along the lines of “Canada’s working moms still earning less, doing more than dads.”  That’s a headline from the Globe and Mail three years ago. Mothers are held back by unfairness. But Dads simply aren’t doing their share.

I’m not saying there is no truth to that. My problem is that a key statistic is always – and I mean always – left out of these comparisons. Fathers spend more time at their paid jobs than mothers. So, like… they have less time available each day for housework and child care. Maybe people just take that as a given, something that doesn’t need to be mentioned. But it should be mentioned, because, well, if you work more outside the home you have less time available to work inside the home.

Back when I was doing communications work for the Father Involvement Research Alliance I got Statistics Canada to pull some numbers for me. And what I found was very interesting.

I wanted to compare mothers and fathers of relatively young kids in families where both parents work full-time. Most studies don’t do that. Many stats lump parents and non-parents, single parent families, two parent families, families with stay-home parents and two-income families all into one basket. That’s not a fair comparison. Many of those families have moms who aren’t in the work force or who work part-time. Some studies even include older people whose children have grown up or at least require very little hands on care. I wanted to compare parents in their prime child-rearing years (age 25 – 44) in families where both parents worked full-time.

And guess what? When you total up the “parent work day” (child care, housework and paid work combined) for those parents, the dad work day and the mom work day are the same length. The difference is that fathers spend about 15% more of their time on paid work and mothers spend about 15% more of their time on housework. So it turns out that mothers who work full-time tend to work fewer hours than their partners (with exceptions, of course). A lot of them do this so they can do more child care. The odd time, the father is the one who works fewer hours and does more child care. But usually it’s Mom.

This matters. It’s not fair to compare dads and moms on child care without taking into account the time they spend on paid work. I’m not saying it explains everything about gender inequity on the home front. But it’s part of the picture.  At least, I can’t see how we’re going to achieve gender equity on the home front until we see it on the paid work front. So let’s talk about it… at least, once in awhile.

If you’re interested in the nerdy details about the Dad and Mom “work day” you can read more on the FIRA site.

Click here to read the Center for Work and Families’ report on The New Dad.


Conflict with Your Ex: Inevitable . . . but you can handle it

by John Hoffman

One question I have been asked repeatedly because of my role as a fathering writer is, “What can I do when my ex-wife is interfering with (or being unreasonable about) my time with my kids?” For the record, I’ve also talked to moms who only wished their ex would spend more time with his children. However, this is a fathering blog, so…

It’s hard to know what to say to separated dads who feel partly (or wholly) cut out of their children’s lives. I have no personal experience or wisdom to draw on. And post-separation co-parenting problems can be all mixed up in personal issues: conflict, grief and anger. But these issues are raised with me often enough I feel I have to try to say something.

I decided to start by contacting a dad I know who seems to do a good job of navigating the minefields of post-separation parenting. Mac (not his real name) is in his late 20s and has two children with two different ex-partners, neither of whom he lives with. So he has double the potential for co-parenting problems. Even so, Mac has both of his kids (one a toddler) most weekends, and he has managed to avoid the real bitter conflict that often comes between divorced dads and their kids.

What’s his secret? Well, he doesn’t have one. Mac has co-parenting problems too. He told me about heated telephone calls with his ex and times when he arrived right on time to pick up his son, only to learn that Rory (eight years old) was still at his grandmother’s house. And although Mac very definitely sees himself as equally responsible for Rory’s well-being, he also sees he has less power. One example: “It feels to me as though she can give me a few weeks’ notice to say that she’ll be taking Rory on a week-long camping trip. But I need to ask permission to go away with him for that long.” When Mac and his first ex-partner split up, he was working 60 hours a week and she was at home. So Rory lived primarily with her. And since Mac was the one who moved out, his first living situation wasn’t as well set up for young kids. “I’ve lived in apartments with several roommates,” Mac says. “Sometimes I didn’t have a very good place for Rory to sleep.” So he didn’t feel he was in good position to negotiate for more time with Rory until recently, when he got a new more kid-friendly place.

Make no mistake. – the power imbalance bugs him. But what I admire is that Mac is keeping his eye on the greater goal. That goal is being as good a dad to Rory (and his young daughter) as he can in the time they have together. He also understands that avoiding conflict helps him keep his relationship with his kids. Mac has never had professional counselling, yet his ideas for minimizing conflict are almost word for word what I’ve heard from family counsellors over the years: Pick your battles. Try not to argue or badmouth your ex in front of the kids. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and keep your mouth shut.

That stuff is easy to say, hard to do. But as Mac says, “When it comes down to it, your ex is somebody you have to deal with regularly for the rest of your life.”  Exactly! Separated/divorced fathers sometimes have to do this really hard thing. They have to put a lot of mental energy into having a good – or at least businesslike – relationship with someone they’d just as soon see as little as possible.

Obviously, separated moms should do this, too. But because of the power imbalance, fathers often need to work harder at keeping things amicable.

Here’s the thing. If you’re in a position of less power but try to act like you have equal power, you’re likely to end up in a lot of power struggles that you will lose. And even if you win, there is often a cost, as several separated dads, including Mac, have told me.

One of Mac’s strategies to avoid conflict is to not burn his energy stressing about some of the things that bug him. “There are things that go on at her house that I don’t like, but I just don’t talk to her about them because it doesn’t get me anything but frustration and more conflict.”

I think that’s wise. He has worked for eight years to get himself into a position where he can negotiate for 50/50 time with his kids. Along with focusing on their needs, one of the smartest things he has done is not make his position any worse. Of course, some guys who do all the right things to minimize conflict and be good fathers can still end up in pretty tough situations. And at that point you probably need legal help.

Good luck with it. Get all the support you can. And if you need professional help to deal with grief or anger, please get it. Taking care of your own well-being and mental health will help your kids (and you) in the long run.

For more information about post-separation fathering check out Full-time Dad, Part-time Kids, Dad Central’s booklet for separated and divorced fathers.


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