Tuesday 23 January 2018

Dear David Coleman: How can my son best use his limited time with his kids?

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

Q. My son and his wife separated three months ago. They have three boys under the age of five years. My son only gets 14 hours access in a week and feels he is of no benefit to his children. He can no longer do things like the bed and bath routine or make his "special breakfasts" for them. He says his access is only like play dates and he's thinking of cutting off access altogether as it is too upsetting for him.

Is there any advice you can share to give meaning to this small amount of access, as I feel it is vital for him to be in their lives?

David replies: Marital separation, when children are involved, is tragic. The separation itself is usually very difficult for both partners, and can be doubly difficult for their children, who often don't understand the reasons why the separation has even occurred.

Your son's children are very young and so they are very unlikely to understand why their dad isn't around as much as he used to be. If your son is missing them, then I think it is fair to assume that they are also missing him.

How much more tragic, for them, would it be to have no contact at all with their dad, never mind the limited contact they currently have.

While the separation seems to be very difficult for your son, I'd be very surprised if he bears no share of the responsibility for why the marriage is ending. The old phrase of "it takes two to tango" holds true in almost every situation of conflict and relationship breakdown.

If that is indeed the case, then your son needs to man up a little. He needs to accept his own share of the responsibility for the fact that his marriage is over and so needs to present himself as less of a victim. He needs to whinge less about the contact that he has and to work to try to increase his access and make it as good as it can possibly be.

In terms of maintaining relationships with children following separation, it is really tough for most fathers, as children usually continue to live with their mothers. I do think that is a horrible wrench for those dads that desperately want to remain intimately involved in their children's lives.

Your son's experience of the access as a "play-date" is probably quite common. The limited time some dads have, never feels normal because it seems like an add-on to their own, and their children's lives, rather than just being a part of normal life.

Because the access is not overnight, many dads have to rely on doing 'stuff' and there is less opportunity for the usual down-time that we have with our children where they, and we, are pottering around, interacting for times and then being separate - but nearby - for times.

Just like your son describes, many dads miss out on the routine and mundane, but important, parts of their children's lives. Bath-times and bedtimes are indeed significant ways of building and maintaining our relationships with our children. Missing out on that is tough.

That said, though, your son needs to think about the long-term. He has three boys who are under five-years of age. That means that it will be 18 to 20 years before the youngest of them is likely to be independent of his parents.

I think your son needs to worry less about the current arrangements and think more about future arrangements and how he will remain relevant and effective in guiding and supporting his children for the next 20 years.

If he loves his children, which it sounds like he does very much, then he has no choice but to continue to be involved in their lives. Refusing to see them at all is both a self-destructive choice - like biting off his nose to spite his face - and a really damaging thing to do to them.

Why should his children suffer more, by not seeing him at all? Even if he is upset that his contact with them is different now, he will end up punishing them if he pulls back from any contact.

If he takes a long-term view, then he may be able to realise that he will be in a stronger position to argue for increased access, including overnight access, holiday access and even fully shared care of his children, if he works positively from where he is at now, rather than giving up on his children.

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