On Psychology

Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2000 / 17 Tishrei, 5761

Being a good dad to child of divorce

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: I am a divorced father of a 5-year-old daughter. My wife and I divorced two years ago. I live about 10 miles away from my daughter and see her, on average, about four days per week. I try my best not to argue with my ex-wife, and we have a civil relationship for the most part.

How do I see to it that my daughter grows up healthy and happy? I constantly tell her how much I love her, and her kindergarten teachers say she has adjusted well to her classroom setting.

I am very concerned when I read your articles on how difficult it is for children to grow up healthy in a single parent environment. What can I do to ensure my daughter is not scarred by the fact that her parents are divorced?

A: There are two mistakes one can make when considering the consequences of divorce for children. The first is to assume divorce has few harmful consequences; that most children do just fine, thank you, following their parents' divorce. The second is to assume every child will be harmed by divorce.

Both views are wrong. While divorce does raise significantly the risk of poor outcomes for children, some children do fine following divorce. And while some children do fine following divorce, many do not. Life is complicated. So is divorce.

In my columns, I stress the negative consequences of divorce because we live in a culture which generally emphasizes the "don't worry be happy -- and so will the kids" view of divorce. On the other hand, I do not mean to give the impression parents can do nothing to help their children adjust to divorce.

How do we talk about divorce in a realistic way so parents understand the difficulties divorce can cause children, while at the same time give hope to parents who are already divorced?

The answer is not to pretend that divorce is just one of many different lifestyle choices that provide children with an equal likelihood of success. Rather, we need to emphasize that it is precisely because divorce places children at increased risk of poor outcomes that divorced parents have to work even harder to ensure their children do well.

As a divorced dad, what can you do to help your daughter succeed despite the divorce? Several things.

First, place the needs of your child clearly above your own. While this is good advice for any parent, doing so has even more far-reaching implications for divorced parents. It means, for example, committing yourself to turning down job offers that would require you move hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from your child.

Second, work hard to minimize conflict with your ex-spouse. This, of course, is easier said than done. After all, if you and your ex had no conflicts, you still would be married. But studies consistently show the most well-adjusted children following divorce are those whose parents are able to get along and share decision-making post-divorce. This means biting your tongue when you get angry and striving to understand your ex-spouse's point of view. Above all, never disparage your ex in front of your child.

Third, don't leave post-divorce success to chance. If you are going to help your child succeed post-divorce, you're going to need a plan. If you haven't already, you should develop a written co-parenting agreement detailing how you and your ex are going to handle the myriad parenting situations that inevitably come up. Once you have developed the plan, stick to it.

Fourth, do not use your daughter to send messages to your former spouse. This only puts your child in the middle of whatever battles and conflicts remain between you and your ex. If you have something to say to your former spouse, say it directly. Keep your daughter out of it.

Fifth, don't pressure your daughter into reassuring you that everything is OK despite the divorce. Doing so makes children think there is something wrong with them when they feel sad or angry about the divorce. Such feelings are common among children of divorce, and they shouldn't be pressured to feel otherwise.

Most importantly, don't become a "treat dad." Research shows that non-custodial parents who mostly engage their children in fun activities, taking them to the movies or to restaurants, for example, have very little positive impact on their children's lives.

On the other hand, non-custodial parents who engage in what psychologists call "authoritative parenting" -- they listen to their children's problems, give them advice, provide explanations for rules, monitor their academic performance, help them with their homework, engage them in mutual projects and discipline them -- do have a positive impact on their child's well-being. In other words, what your daughter needs you to be is her father, not a friend or Santa Claus.

So, can children do well despite divorce? Yes. Is it harder? Yes. Is it worth the effort? You bet.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn