Wednesday 26 April 2017

Dear David: 'My kids don't trust their dad after our separation - how can I get them to talk to him?'

Separation is always difficult for children
Separation is always difficult for children
Photo posed by model
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I have two children age six and eight whose dad moved to the US three years ago. He visited last year but let them down badly (went on holidays alone over Christmas when they had school holidays) and they don't trust him. He tries to call every week but never shows interest in their activities and knows nothing about their lives now. The children don't want to talk to him. They are much happier and more secure in themselves when they don't talk to him, but I am worried that he will blame me or that they may regret it in later years.

David replies: Separation is always difficult for children. Separation with such  distance from one parent adds to the complexity. Your children were comparatively young when their dad moved to the US.  It is very hard for children to maintain closeness in their relationships, at their ages, without a regular physical proximity.

For example, older children will have memories of the absent parent that might sustain them, or might provide an emotional context for any current contact, even if it is at the remove of a phone call.

But, when children are unlikely to have any such memories, their relationships have to be based on the here and now of their interactions. Naturally, if they aren't meeting their dad, it becomes difficult to "know" him.

The situation with your children's dad sounds like it is further confused, or complicated, by the apparent "sterility" of the weekly calls.

On the one hand he does ring regularly, but when he rings he doesn't show interest in the children. It seems odd to go to the trouble of calling consistently, but then not to engage in the conversation that you have initiated.

Children aged six and eight will find it very difficult to spontaneously, and proactively, keep phone conversations alive and vibrant. It is usually the adult that does all the work of the conversation, guiding and prompting children with questions.

I could imagine that it is tricky for their dad to keep the relationship with the children alive if he is just reliant on phone calls. So it seems like a tragic wasted opportunity to not spend lots of time with them when he visited at Christmas.

That does make me wonder about his real level of commitment to his children. While the regular phone calls are good, it does seem like he hasn't actually prioritised his children following his split from you.

Perhaps this is what the children are picking up in the tone of his phone calls. Perhaps they have already experienced the calls as a "duty" for him, rather than as a desire. Maybe his energy, when he rings, is low and he doesn't communicate how excited he is to be talking with them.

If that is the case, then I could also see why the children aren't too fussed about talking with him.

However, rather than just letting the phone contact drift because the children aren't engaged by their dad, it might be worth trying to talk to him about what you see happening.

Naturally, that assumes that you and he have worked out enough of your differences, in the three years, to be able to talk civilly and constructively about the children and their needs.

If your relationship is still full of conflict, then see if there is someone in his extended family that you could persuade to talk to him. I do think he needs to hear that the manner of his calls aren't working for the children and that he might want to explore other ways of communicating with them.

Postcards, Skype, letters, emails, online photo sharing, personal blogging or vlogging for them might really enliven the communication. Importantly, he needs to begin to share his life and experience with them, rather than just sterilely and mechanically asking the same questions every week about what the children are doing.

Give their dad an opportunity to mix things up a bit before deciding that the manner of his current communication doesn't work. It would be good for the children to maintain a relationship with him, but only if he is willing to invest in it.

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