We try not to stare. But we know too well that uncomfortable scene in the local fast food restaurant: that flustered father sitting with his children, trying desperately to keep the conversation going, as the kids' eyes are glued to electronic devices. The father peppers out questions, hoping to hit pay-dirt with a topic of interest. He receives one-word mumbled responses in return.
And, sadly, the harder this man tries to engage his children, the more apparent it is that he's totally out of his league.
While the above scene often involves a non-custodial divorced parent trying to make the best of awkward visits, it's just as likely we're observing a very much-married dad who's in charge of the kids while his wife is tied up. Historically, in so many households, mothers have been in charge of navigating the emotional and social lives of their children, assuming the responsibility of interfacing with the schools, peers and extra-curricular activities. And while the trend has been growing for men to take a much more active role in their children's lives, oftentimes, their schedules and discomfort get in the way.
It's never too late for fathers to take active steps to improve the relationships they have with their children. Some parents assume they just don't have the necessary skills to build a closer bond and are defeated before they start. However, if they push through the discomfort, tolerating the missteps along the way, they may be pleasantly surprised to see how receptive their children can be.
Non-custodial divorced fathers have a particularly tough challenge. These men are often at a disadvantage because they are not privy to the casual sharing that evolves around day-to-day interactions.
Let's assume for the moment that everyone has taken the high road and the custodial parent has supported his efforts (a big assumption, of course). Children will still carry their own feelings about the break up and these emotions often spill over, impacting the ease of conversation.
Having said that, divorced parents are likely to assume their children's moodiness can be attributed to the divorce, when in fact, so many other factors come into play. Divorced parents need to let go of their guilt sufficiently so it doesn't color every aspect of the interaction. Children may find it tiresome to be asked repeatedly how they're feeling about the divorce. When divorced parents become too defensive, they may assume an edge or impose pressure on the situation. Or, even worse, they may retreat with discouragement, assuming there is little they can do. Children may wrongly assume the non-custodial parent no longer has the time or interest. It will take extra effort to soften the hurt and to demonstrate a true commitment.
There's tremendous value in taking the time to learn the names of their friends and teachers (and to remember them). Our kids pay attention to if we're carefully listening to their stories. They become exasperated if we don't know all the players in their lives and assume it's because we don't care. It often helps to contact the children's school and request the calendar. This heads off feeling hurt or angry if the children or ex haven't provided this information.
Some of us have had our best conversations with our children in the car. When kids are fresh from an activity, we have a natural opportunity to ask casual questions. Showing interest and curiosity about their day is apt to promote further sharing. It makes a huge difference when we show we are truly open to hearing what matters to them, and won't be too quick to judge them or imply that we know better. Kids can also pick up if we're distracted and are having the expected conversation by rote. We can all demonstrate a true willingness to bond with our children by actively participating in activities as a family or one-on-one.
It's important to remind ourselves that it's okay to have silent moments. When we rush in prematurely to fill the empty spaces, we may inadvertently head off conversation. Our children sense when we are trying too hard, and, feeling pressure, may resist. Take the lead from many experts who advise asking open-ended questions, rather than queries that let them off the hook with easy one-word answers. For example, when we ask if they enjoyed the basketball game, they might be inclined to mumble a quick yes or no. However, if we find an interesting question to ask about the game, referring to specific players or the coach's strategy, we're more likely to find ourselves immersed in spirited discussions.
It's human nature for people to clam up when they sense another person is poised to initiate a heavy conversation. Our children often have a sixth sense and may freeze when we're about to bring up a tough topic. Trying to approach a subject in a conversational tone and watching our tone of voice may lighten the mood sufficiently.
Most of our kids give us openings when they're troubled and looking for guidance. We just have to keep an eye out for the cues. Sadly, our kids often reach out when it's the least convenient time. We might be crafting an important email for the next day's meeting, heading off to a golf tournament, worried about a past due bill, or just preoccupied by life. If we tell them "not now" too many times, they may misinterpret our commitment to them and stop trying.
It's so important for mothers, also, to examine their role in encouraging or discouraging the other parent's involvement. Some women have such a strong investment and pride in their relationships with their children that they inadvertently communicate they don't have confidence in the other parent. There's so much to be gained for everyone concerned when both parents are supported in assuming active roles in their children's lives.
Our children truly appreciate when we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes. When we let them know that we are open to learning about their lives on their terms and refrain from preaching or talking at them, they often surprise us with their openness.
Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com.