The Summertime Parent

While most children were anxiously waiting for the school year to end, Jonathan was simply anxious. Although most boys loved traveling across the country during vacation, Jonathan dreaded the annual trek to see his father. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his father or enjoy being with him. It was the children from his father’s new marriage that he didn’t like. He felt like he was no longer his father’s son and that his dad loved them more than him. To top it off, he wouldn’t get to see his friends or his mother for almost ten weeks.

Jonathan’s parents had divorced, and his father had moved to another state. He only saw his father during Christmas and summer vacations. His father would send birthday cards and occasional letters, and with the invention of email, he could type off a quick note anytime he or his dad wanted. But that didn’t make the situation easier for him. In some ways, it only made a hard situation harder.

It was no summer picnic for Jonathan’s father either. Instead of feeling excitement about seeing his son, he felt anger and resentment that was often channeled toward his ex-wife whom he blamed for the custody arrangements. “I never realized how hard divorce could be,” exclaimed Jonathan’s father, “and getting remarried has only made it worse. Now I am stuck in the middle of two sets of frustrated families.”

Wounds of Divorce
Regardless of the reasons, divorce hurts! Any separation between two connected people will cause emotional wounds when pulled apart. Like any wound, the traumatized area must be cleaned and cared for if healing is going to be possible. The more dirt slung between divorced parents, through verbal and physical fights or nasty legal battles, the more infection in the relationship between parent and child will develop.

Jonathan’s father moved across the country because of a great job offer…or at least, that was what he told everyone. The job was great, but the real reason was that he couldn’t get along with Jonathan’s mother and just needed to leave and start over again. Unfortunately, that left Jonathan behind. “In retrospect, I would have stayed, regardless of the situation,” admits Jonathan’s father. “At the time, the hurt was too much to stand. I didn’t want the divorce, and his mother’s new boyfriend was just salt in the wound. Rather than continue to argue and waste money on lawyers, I decided to leave.”

Parents who have a long-distance relationship must address the wounds of divorce. Cleaning out a wound is painful but necessary. Similarly, letting go of old hurts and memories is important for healing and growth. Jonathan relates that his first summer with his dad in his new home was fun: “We went out to eat, the movies, miniature golf, and then my dad started pumping me for information on my mom and her boyfriend, when I just wanted to be with my dad.”

When parents do not deal with their own issues, children suffer all over again and their wounds are not allowed to heal. “Summer time parents” need to take care of themselves throughout the entire year so that they can enjoy the time with their children. Parents can care for themselves by consulting with a professional, developing a strong network of friends, exercising regularly and eating right.

Reassurances and Permissions
Major changes are frightening to young children. The loss of a parent creates fears of loss of food and shelter, being forgotten, attacked, punished, or unloved. While this might seem irrational to a parent, it is a real concern for the child. Children need reassurances that these things will continue to
be in their lives and, most importantly, that they are loved. Don’t make promises that things will go back to the way they were or be just as good. That is one promise parents can’t deliver, and it breaks down a child’s trust. Simply offer a verbal hug of hopefulness that the future will be secure and safe. In addition to reassurance, children often need permission to let go of the guilt that attaches itself to living with the “school-year” parent and visiting the summer parent. Both parents need to tell the child that it is okay that he/she are going. Be honest about missing the child but save the wailing and cloth-ripping for another time and place.

Permission giving helps to untangle the loyalty binds that children get caught in after divorce. Don’t ask a lot of questions about the other parent and his/her life back home. If the child wants to talk, fine, but don’t start an investigation and definitely keep your opinion of the other parents life to
yourself. Children feel they are disloyal to one parent by staying with and loving another parent. This problem is rooted in the concrete thinking styles of school-aged children. It is a developmental issue that can’t be removed and everyone must learn to adjust.

Creative Communication
The key to being a successful summer parent is to have regular communication during the other months of the year. Because it is difficult for the parent who moves away to watch the child grow up, predictable and consistent communication in the form of phone calls, letters, postcards, e-mails, photos, and tape recordings can help. There are many social media tools and apps that can also be used.

Too many parents spend their time on the phone or in letters mourning the time they are apart or how much they miss the child. This re-traumatizes the child and makes the parent look pathetic. If it has to be said, say it one time and move on. Focus the discourse on what is going on in your and your child’s life. Make plans for the upcoming visit and discuss emotional issues important to the child. Stay away from morbid meanderings.

Make the communications short and newsworthy. A one page letter talking about how the dog ate your favorite shoe or describing a beautiful sunset will make a better connection between parent and child than a long, boring letter that lists every detail of the week. E-mail is also a great way to communicate as the medium itself is geared toward brief, informal notes, and the instantaneous nature of the format makes frequent communication practical.

Try alternative mediums. If the parent or the child is not a “letter writer,” try using a tape recording. Buy a compact recorder or use your phone and walk around for a day recording various activities and thoughts. Capture
the sounds of the dog eating your shoe or describe the sunset as you look out the back window. Buy a Polaroid camera and take pictures of the new house and neighborhood and send those (by e-mail or snail mail) to the child. Alternative forms of communication can add a little more color and life to dry words on paper and bring the child and parent closer together emotionally.

If you like creative ideas, do a project or play a game across the time zones. Read a sport article or watch a favorite television program and then discuss it later on the phone or by e-mail. Keep separate journals that are exchanged during the visits. Create an online web page with both parent and child as co-webmasters. Play a game of checkers (with two sets) and give the moves to each other during your communications.

Make up a “sharing box” where you put mementos and little treasures for the other person to look at and discuss when together. Start a garden or acquire an aquarium and get advice on what to plant and how to care for the fish from the other person. Creative ideas, such as these, foster family solidarity despite time and place. It makes the relationship feel real and alive and that is important to parent and child.

School Connections
Summer parents feel out of touch when it comes to the child’s life at school. Request to be put on the school’s mailing list or give the child’s teacher an e-mail address to update the distant parent on activities and progress. Many schools and teachers have web sites set up so parents can view their child’s itinerary and grades. Knowing what is going on at the child’s school allows parents to ask intelligent questions about upcoming field trips and school projects. The child will also feel that the parent cares about him or her. Parents can make similar connections with doctors, therapists, and coaches.
Jonathan and his father still miss each other, but their relationship has blossomed despite the distance. They are routing for the same baseball team and are working on a go-cart that Jonathan and his new siblings will race during the summer at a track near the father’s house. “I started taking
pictures of the engine as I dismantled it and I scan and send them out each week by e-mail to Jonathan. He told me last night that he has started a scrapbook with all the pictures in them. When he gets here, the go-cart should be all put together, and we can paint it together,” explains his father.

Geography doesn’t have to separate parents and children emotionally. Summer-time parents can keep the relationship alive during the school year so that they look forward to being together and can pick up where they left off. “Jonathan has excitement in his voice when we talk about our time together.That is the biggest gift I could ever receive!”

Special Free Report: “Balancing Love and Limits in the NonTraditional Family”

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Balancing love and limits in discipline is one of the most 

challenging aspects of parenting. Love and limits refer to 

different styles of parenting with love representative of a 

“permissive” or child centered style of parenting and limits 

representative of “authoritative” or parent centered style. Each 

style is based on a set of beliefs, in the parent, about what it 

means to be a good parent. No one wants to be a bad parent. 

They adopt a style that they feel best meets the goal of 

parenting to raise children that are able to manage themselves 

and function productively in the world. 

Get some tools to rebuild your family today…click here!

The holidays with kids and an ex

Holidays are by their nature, challenging for divorced and separated parents. The family-focused activities present dilemmas: Which parent will host which activity; which parent will chaperone which event; which parent will have Santa visit? This month can end up feeling anything but festive.

“You couldn’t agree on things when you were married. Now you’ve got to agree to them when you are divorced,” said Edward Farber, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at George Washington University School of Medicine.

Farber has been practicing for more than 30 years and his new book, “Raising the Kid You Love with the Ex You Hate,” (Greenleaf) is poised to be published next month. He said the key for ex-couples navigating the treacherous holidays is to keep focus not on each other, but on the child.

“Divorced parents sometimes think that having their child with them over the holidays is winning. The holidays are for the child, not for scoring points on your ex. Be flexible and responsive to the needs of your child.

“The holiday schedule your child needed when you separated may not be the same holiday schedule that works for her five years later when she is 13.”

In an interview this week, Farber went on to explain in more depth how divorced or separated parents might follow that advice. He also discussed what we have learned culturally about kids and divorce in the years he’s been in practice.

Excerpts of our interview are below:

BETHESDA, Md. – 2011: Marsha Lopez, who is Jewish, is divorced from her Catholic husband but the two agreed to make the holidays an interfaith experience with Jewish ornaments on the Christmas tree, for example, so their two children would be comfortable with both religions
(Dayna Smith – For the Washington Post)

JD: What are some of the biggest traps divorced and separated parents can fall into during the holidays and how can they be avoided?

EF: Frankly, it’s just hard for your child not to see both of his parents to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza. Spending Christmas with dad because your agreement says that’s what supposed to happen in even numbered years may work for the parents, but it can ignore the needs of your child.

Not seeing a parent at all over the holidays because of an agreement just leaves the child feeling empty and hollow. A pre-scheduled call to mom on the holidays and getting her boatload of presents is great, but spending the holiday away from mom entirely because it’s dad’s year to have the child simply underscores the split in the family.

If both parents are in town, let your child spend some holiday time with each parent. Develop new traditions. Christmas gifts can be opened in the morning in one house and late Christmas day in the other. Hanukkah candles can be lit right after school in one house and before bedtime in the other. Be flexible when it comes to family gatherings. Often when dealing with your ex around the holidays, what goes around one year comes around the next.

JD: What about faith — if the parents are of different faiths, how can conflict be avoided?

EF: Co-parenting means you are not always going to get what you want. But you need to remember this isn’t about you, it’s about your child. You no longer control the values and religious upbringing of your child all of the time. You share this control with your ex, someone you once loved, but now do not.

Create for your child as stable, harmonious and conflict free world as you can. If you practiced two faiths previously, allow that to continue. You have to respect the parenting decisions and values of your ex, even if that includes a religious belief different than yours. The differences in religious beliefs and practices will not create behavioral and emotional difficulties in your child, but conflicts between parents over those differences will cause distress. Tell your child, “Many people practice different religions. Your dad grew up celebrating Hanukkah. Your mom grew up celebrating Christmas. Both are important and all of your family want you to enjoy and celebrate the meaning and traditions of both holidays.”

The bottom line is that when adults fight — whether about Christmas or Kwanza or about organic or non-organic — and when they cannot together set consistent expectations that allow meaningful relationships with both parents, the child suffers.

JD: You have been in practice for more than 30 years. How do you think parents have gotten better at co-parenting? Are there areas where they’ve, in general, gotten worse?

EF: Real co-parenting as the cultural norm is a relatively new practice. Thirty years ago, children generally stayed with their moms and saw their dads on some weekends. Moms did most of the heavy lifting of child rearing and dads were often “Disney Dads” involved in mostly the fun and games activities. Moms made decisions about education, religion, extracurricular activities and social and moral development with dads having input on financial matters or major health issues. Dads often didn’t want or have the day-to-day responsibilities and decision-making roles, especially with young children.

Well, all that has changed. Joint legal custody — where both parents have to agree on major decisions in the child’s life, is the norm. Some forms of joint legal custody — where the child spends significant time living with each parent, are also far more common. But with more joint legal and physical custodial relationships can come more problems.

JD: If a divorced or separated parent were to take away one message from your book, what would you hope it would be?

EF: Co-parenting can promote positive growth and development in your child, even if co-parenting with an ex you hate. After divorce your child needs a meaningful relationship with both parents. She needs to see you and your ex parenting without conflict and together making important decisions in her life. You can effectively parent the child you love with an ex you hate.

Are you coordinating the holidays with an ex this year? What are your strategies?

Related Content:

Religion and parenting don’t always mix

Chores don’t lead to divorce, but they get us talking

Is overparenting killing our marriages?

What to Do When Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work

In a good-enough divorce, exes work through feelings of anger, betrayal and loss and arrive at a place of acceptance. Frustrations over the other parent’s values and choices are contained and pushed aside, making space for the Holy Grail of post-divorce life: effective co-parenting.

Co-parenting is possible only when both exes support their children’s need to have a relationship with the other parent and respect that parent’s right to have a healthy relationship with the children.

But some people never get to acceptance. They become, essentially, addicted to anger. They convince themselves that the other parent is incompetent, mentally ill, or dangerous. They transmit this conviction directly or indirectly not only to the children, but also to school staff, mental health professionals and anyone who will listen.

High-conflict exes are on a mission to invalidate the other parent. No therapist, mediator, parenting class, or Gandhi-esque channeling will make an anger-addicted ex take off the gloves and agree to co-parent.

If this scenario feels familiar, and you are wondering how you’re going to survive raising kids with your high-conflict ex without losing every last one of your marbles, I offer you this counterintuitive suggestion: Stop trying to co-parent!

Try Parallel Parenting instead.

What is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel Parenting is radical acceptance. It means letting go of fighting reality. Divorce is terrible enough, but to have a divorce that is so hellish as to make co-parenting impossible is another kind of terrible altogether.

It’s helpful to conceptualize Parallel Parenting as an approach many Alcoholics Anonymous folks use when dealing with the addict in their lives: they stop going to the hardware store looking for milk. Why are you trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who isn’t reasonable, at least with you? Stop expecting reciprocity or enlightenment. Stop needing the other person to see you as right. You are not ever going to get these things from your anger-addicted ex, and you can make yourself sick trying.

How to Practice Parallel Parenting

You tried to co-parent so your kids would see their parents get along, and to make them feel safe. That didn’t work. Now you need to limit contact with your ex to reduce the conflict in order to make your kids feel safe – and to keep yourself from going nuts. So how do you do this?

1. Communicate as little as possible
Stop talking on the phone. When speaking with a hostile ex, you will likely be drawn into an argument and nothing will get resolved. Limit communication to texting and e-mail. This way you can choose what to respond to and you will be able to delete knee-jerk retorts that you would make if you were on the phone.

2. Make Rules for Communication
Hostile exes tend to ignore boundaries. So you will have to be very clear about the terms for communication. E-mail or texting should be used only for logistics: travel plans, a proposed weekend swap, doctor appointments. If your ex tends uses e-mails to harass you, tell him you will not respond, and if the abuse continues, you will stop e-mailing altogether.

3. Do Not Respond to Threats of Lawsuits
Hostile exes frequently threaten to modify child support or custody arrangements. Do not respond! Tell your ex that any discussion of litigation must go through your attorney. This will require money on your ex’s part: phone calls between attorneys, disclosing financial statements, etc. It is quite possible that your ex does not really intend to put her money where her mouth is, so don’t take the bait.

4. Avoid being together at child-related functions
It’s great for your kids to see the two of you together – but only if they see you getting along. So attend events separately as much as possible. Schedule separate parent-teacher conferences. Trade off hosting birthday parties. Do curbside drop-offs so your child doesn’t have to feel the tension between you and your ex.

5. Be proactive with school staff and mental health professionals
School staff and therapists may have heard things about you that aren’t true – for instance, that you are out of the picture or mentally ill. So be proactive. Fax your custody order to these individuals so they understand the custody arrangement. Even if you are a non-custodial parent, you are still entitled to information regarding your child’s academic performance or mental health treatment and the school and therapists want you to be involved. Talk to school staff and therapists as soon as possible. Do not be defensive, but explain the situation. When they see you, they will realize that you are a reasonable person who is trying to do the right thing for your child.

6. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Parallel Parenting requires letting go of what happens in the other parent’s home. Although it may drive you crazy that your ex lets 6-year-old Lucy stay up until midnight, there is really not much you can do about it. Nor can you control your ex’s selection of babysitters, children’s clothing or how much TV time is allowed.

Your child will learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each house. If Sienna complains about something that goes on at Dad’s, instruct her to speak to him directly. Trying to solve a problem between your ex and your child will only inflame the conflict and teach her to pit the two of you against each other. You want to empower your child, not teach her that she needs to be rescued.

Parallel Parenting is a last resort, to be implemented when attempts at co-parenting have failed. But that doesn’t mean you have failed as a divorced parent. In fact, the opposite is true. By reducing conflict, Parallel Parenting will enhance the quality of your life and most importantly, take your child out of the middle.

And isn’t that what a good-enough divorce is all about?