when your kids don't want to see their dad (and you wish they didn't have to)

here's an excerpt from an email I received recently:

I have two incredible kids, ages 7 and 9, and have been divorced from their father for a few years. The problem is, he is a complete trophy father when he is single, but when he is dating he is absolutely awful. The kids cry when the time comes for him to come get them, begging me to allow them to stay home. If they ask him if they can stay with me he gets nasty with them and hangs up on them, which he has done often, even calling them names at times. I have started taking my kids to a therapist, but I don't know what to do about their father. Help! Please! I don't know what to do, he won't listen to what I tell him when it comes to the kids and how they feel.

My heart goes out to this mom and the thousands of others who could have also written this letter. This is a deeply painful situation that pushes almost every button in a mother's psyche.

I'll offer several suggestions for you to chew on. You may not like some or all of them -- my opinions are usually pretty radical. I'll trust you to experiment with whatever resonates with you and leave the rest. So here we go:

It would be easy for me to jump on the ain't he awful bandwagon, and commiserate about how wrong he is for doing all these things. But I'm not sure how helpful that would be for you. If you are wanting empathy, as we all do at times, I'd encourage you to talk with sympathetic friends.

As for me ... I cannot tell you how to make their father listen to you.

I cannot help you teach your girls how to get him to listen to them.

What I may be able to help you do is re-calibrate your expectations of him with what he IS doing, and take your focus off of what he SHOULD be doing. And once you are grounded in what is real at this moment in time, any actions you need to take will become obvious.

So let's start with what is happening. What can you count on him to do? At the risk of oversimplifying and overdramatizing, let's say: partner with women who are not maternal or even cruel, ignore your kids when he's in a relationship, get angry and defensive, call them names, refuse to listen or communicate constructively, etc. Not that he's going to be this way forevermore, but for now, that's been pretty consistent, right?

When we divert our energy into thinking about what he should be doing better, we miss some opportunities to take action ourselves, and to empower our kids to do the same. So for the time being, let's assume his behavior is not going to change anytime soon, and that no amount of bringing it to his attention will impact it.

In the state where I live, being uncommunicative, mean, and defensive is not legal grounds for a reduction in parenting time. The courts will take action if there's evidence of neglect or abuse, of course, but if I am hearing you right, this is not happening in your case. I'd advise you to consult with your attorney to see if any legal action can be taken.

You mentioned you were thinking about moving out of state. It may indeed come to that, but there are other things you can try before you go there. I love that you are taking the kids to a therapist, and would encourage you to see one yourself, who can help you tell the difference between your reactions to what is happening and your kids' reactions. It can be hard to sort that out ourselves.

Although it breaks our hearts to see it, crying will not kill our children. Nor will disappointment. Please understand, I don't mean to belittle our children's emotional pain, or our pain when we see our children suffering! It can feel devastating. I truly do understand that.

And given the nature of this world, no matter how much energy we put into preventing our kids from having to experience pain, we cannot. Life will make sure to disappoint all of us at some point. And that's a good thing. The ashes of disappointment are fertile ground in which the seeds of resolve, clarity, and determination can sprout and take root.

What you may not realize is how much of a difference your presence makes in the life of your kids. Because you are there, standing as an example of availability, compassion, and presence, they will never be confused about how they want and deserve to be treated. The trick is not to lose your center by becoming angry at him when you hear what's he's doing, because this takes your focus off of listening and being present with your girls.

How do we do that? We work through our own guilt and anger in therapy or with friends. We forgive ourselves for picking him as their father, or for leaving him to meet our own needs, or for any harm we think our choices may have caused to our children.

When we've done this inner work, then we can listen. We can empathize. We can stay engaged with our kids, even when they are in pain, without feeling enraged or guilty. We can witness their experience with compassion, and help them find their way through.

We teach them by example that big feelings are okay, and that we are not afraid of them, and that they pass all on their own eventually, just like a thunderstorm. These are powerful lessons that will serve our children well every day of their lives.

We avoid jumping on the ain't he awful bandwagon together, and instead help our kids to stay focused on experiencing their feelings in the moment. "How does that feel in your body? I notice your hands are squeezed tight -- what are they saying?"

We don't ask questions about the details of what was said or done, we keep the focus on their feelings. We set our own thoughts and feelings and judgments aside for processing with adults later, and we allow our kids to fully express theirs.

Here's what is amazing about this process: when the energy of feelings is allowed to flow freely, the intensity naturally dissipates. I would sit with my kids and just listen for 15 minutes or so to the most intense anger and outrage, and then they would just be done, and leave to shoot hoops or something.

I did not agree or disagree, I just let them vent. I could not fix it for them, as much as I wanted to, so I didn't offer suggestions or give advice. I could not impact their dad in any way, so I could not help. All I could do was love them and listen. And it was enough.

Years down the line, not much changed at their other house. Their dad was still doing his same old stuff. But the kids were different. They stopped taking his behavior personally. They stopped thinking that if they just told him what they needed, he would give it. They became somewhat impervious to it - they would say, Yeah, you know, that's just Dad. They still loved him. They just took him with a grain of salt, and knew with crystal clarity what they liked and didn't.

You may never change his behavior, or get your kids away from him. But you can let your outrage strengthen your resolve to be the kind of parent your kids deserve. They will naturally recognize and gravitate towards emotional health when it is available. So make sure it is, in YOU. The rest will work itself out.




22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wonder what actually goes on when the kids are alone with the dad (and his current squeeze). If they get that upset when they have to see him and he is nasty to them on the phone, that should be a warning sign?

I was forced to stay friends with my dad because my mum still loved him which has left us open to his continuing bad behaviour for over ten years and he will never change. Would be better to move away and start a fresh life.

karen said...

Excellent point, and this mother in another part of her email said that she did not suspect abuse or neglect. If either seems likely, then legal action should be taken immediately.

I learned from my own kids that because they were accustomed to being treated with respect and kindness in my home, they felt almost violated when they were on the receiving end of skepticism or criticism at school or elsewhere.

They didn't react aggressively or badly, but they did feel strongly, and when it was safe and appropriate, they would express and release those feelings.

I think of that kind of reaction as an emotionally healthy one -- they knew they deserved better, they knew what healthy relationships look and feel like, and they wanted that.

So in a nutshell - no, getting that upset when they have to see him does not necessarily indicate neglect or abuse. It could just mean they have a strong preference to be treated with respect. And that is something that the emotionally healthy parent can help them cope with, by listening, letting them vent, and continuing to treat them with respect and kindness.

It's a bummer that you had to deal with bad behavior from your dad for so many years. It's also a bummer that your mom wasn't able to be your ally and advocate.

And, I'm betting that you developed some coping skills that are still serving you well today. You may even have carried some of your experiences forward and used them to inform and enrich your own parenting.

When legal custody arrangements force contact with a less than ideal parent, sometimes that's the best we can hope for -- that our children will turn those lemons into lemonade.

Anonymous said...

In my case, I am a father who is wanting to spend time with my 15 year old daughter who says she doesn't want to spend time with me or come over to my house. I don't call her names and I am not nasty to her, I tell her I love her and want to spend time with her. Her mother says that she will not force her to go if she doesn't want to which of course fuels my daughter resolve in being able to resist my requests.

I mean should I do nothing and never see her again (which has been the case) , or force the issue and declare that I am abiding by the court order, which is sure to make both my daughter and ex, furious.

On thing to remember is that the terms "upset", "nasty", and others are subjective terms and cause people to define them based on their own experience and really aren't descriptive enough. The father may have a different view of the whole affair. I can tell you from experience that when you child doesn't want to be with you or have anything to do with you, it hurts very deeply. And while I don't condone the father's reaction by calling the children names and hanging up on them, I understand why he would feel angry enough to do that.

karen alonge said...

Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right that these situations are entirely subjective, and each person who is involved will have their own perspective and interpretation.

I also agree with you that words like upset and nasty are judgments, not observations, and as such, are not likely to contribute much toward a constructive solution.

This can be a terribly painful situation for the non-custodial parent. The feeling of powerlessness can be completely overwhelming, and it's very important for parents in this situation to have solid emotional support.

Doing nothing and never seeing her again doesn't sound like a viable option. I also know that forcing the issue with the court is not necessarily the answer either. The court might be able make your daughter's body show up in your home, but not her heart. Thus the 'victory' could be quite an unfulfilling one.

You may find some helpful suggestions in my post sharing joint custody of a teenager post as well as some of the postings in the teens topic.

I wish you all the best. My hunch is that you have a very good chance of reactivating your relationship with your daughter, and that it's unlikely you will never see her again.

Keep reaching out to her with gestures of love and support even if she does not respond. When she's 18, she'll be free to connect with you on her own terms again. Getting angry with her or trying to force contact might only burn the bridge that she could use later to walk back into a freely chosen relationship with you.

Anonymous said...

Men and Women view things diffrent, but patience and love for children is key...
I've been divorced and just got out of another relationship for my kids came first. This is what I have notice with some men...just my opinion and observation. Men are more aggressive and outspoken toward children and less patient. Mothers are patient, talk calmly and loving toward her children. Both the men in my life said I babied my children too much and that I was'nt aggressive enough. It seems like the guys the raised there voice and demanded things they wanted the kids to do without even telling the kids "Thank You" My kids dont like going to there dads but they go but once he raises his voice to them they argue back, but if he's calmly talking to them they respond with respect and there not a problem. Kids dont like dad because he takes his stress out on them and they feel like his target. My ex-husband asked me one time how I get the kids to do what I ask. If you talk nicely and calmly a child without raising your voice and they will still do as you ask of them without a fight(at least my children dont argue back. They show respect)I told my ex husband this and he's tried but sometimes he forgets and end up a disaster. He's trying it took 3 years of him battling with kids before he finally asked me how I did it. Now he realized It was'nt babying it was be calm, loving and respectful. Kids want to be respected and reconized too. Me and my ex-husband dont get along that well but we are friends and talk because of our children. Hope this helps somebody.

Anonymous said...

I am the mother who wrote this concern that we are all commenting about. I appreciate all the feedback that I am reading. I do want to add that in my original email it actually did state that he was pulling them by their hair and throwing them down by their necks. Most recently he had been hitting them very hard in the head, giving them headaches. My youngest has been vomiting at school on the days they have to go with him. This is now a court matter, my children need to be heard. They are completely terrified of going with him and have legit reasons for this. Thanks again for all the feedback, it is nice to read the views of others.

pjz said...

I am in a similar situation. My children are 3 and 5. My x moved out over 1 year ago and is living with another woman who doesnt particularly like children and has inlfuenced my X not to take the kids resulrly and to discuss in aapropriate things in fornt of the children. I dont ask the children too much about their stay as i dont want to put any additional pressure on them. I olisten to what they have to tell me and work with that to udnerstand how they are feeling and coping with the situation. I always talk up the visits to their father and talk about how their father loves them because I think it is important they see him in the best light possible. I know his loves his children is his heart he just has differnt priortities than I do.

They have recently want to come home early on weekends and holidays that they are supposed to be with him. As they are so young, it is difficult for me to udnerstand where the issue is coming form and how to help them so they feel comfortable.

I am not sure what I can/should do. should i allow them to come back early because I am hearing that they are unhappy or should I maike them stay the weekend?

karen alonge said...

Your kids are lucky indeed to have such a tuned-in mama.

I think that if their dad doesn't mind them leaving early, it's fine to cut their visits a bit shorter. They will still have plenty of time and opportunity to learn how to cope with the situation there.

And if he's not okay with that, then keep doing what you are doing -- listening, empathizing, and being present with your kids while they offload the feelings of frustration, etc, that accumulate during their time with him.

I can't overemphasize how much of a difference it makes in the resilience of a child when there is even just one person with whom they can be completely honest, candid, and release all their feelings.

Good for you for being that person for them!

hope that helps,
karen

Anonymous said...

my kids r 9 and 11. i have been divorced from their dad for about 6yrs.it wasnt an amicable split and I do feel guilty that my kids witnessed arguments + their dad being aggresive towards me. my son gets a nervous tick when he feels very stressed but we have coping techniques.their dad has never been very 'hands on' but I hoped things would improve and even when my kids have begged not to go to their dads I have pointed out how much they would miss him. but recently things have been getting worse 3 wks ago he didnt even get out of bed while they were there (hangover)he only sees them on a sunday and ive invited him to come and watch his son play football but he has never been. I pick up and drop the kids off at his he has promised my kids so many things and i tell the kids he doesnt mean to let them down he just doesnt think. last sunday my son foned me at work and asked me to pick him up his dad had been aggresive towards him and shouting in his face my daughter was upset also and i have never seen my son so angry.i have told their dad they dont want to go to see him but if or when they change their mind i will conntact him. he now says its my fault and i must make them come i dont no wot to do.

karen alonge said...

ouch, that's a sticky situation. you might need to get some legal advice to find out what your obligation is regarding visitation. in any case, my sympathies are with you. this is a painful situation for everyone involved, and I wish there was an easy answer ...

Anonymous said...

OHH and what would the comments be if it were the mother who the children did not want to see and the mother who yalled at them and hung up. It is all too apparent that society is used to blaming the man and victimizing the women. Fact Most all divorce is initated by the women. The key point here is co parenting where the mother shares the responsibility of talking with the children about the value of having a relationship with their father. Chances are the children are at an age where they really dont want to be with either parent let alone having to deal with both their parents lives seperately at the expence of their own lives with friends etc. To the mother ...stop playing the victim here . Could she really say she was never angery at her kids or yelled at them. I think not and I would not condem the mother if she did. So let up on the Dad!

karen alonge said...

thanks for your comment, anonymous.

I respond to questions and comments from readers in the gender in which I receive them. Had the initial question been from a father, my response would have been the same. In fact, you may like to check out the other posts on this blog responding to questions that did come from fathers.

I particularly appreciate this part of your comment, and have added my perspective in parentheses:

The key point here is co parenting where the mother (I would say 'both parents') shares the responsibility of talking with the children about the value of having a relationship with their father (each other).

I would also add that ideally, each parent will build a good, solid relationship with their children so that they don't really need the other parent to remind the kids of their value.

When each parent takes responsibility for modeling kindness, tolerance, and patience with each other and the kids, the occasional flare of emotion will not require a lot of damage control.

Anonymous said...

You know everyone can be right in so many ways but if the mother is manipulating the kids at home that's the root! How are the kids acting towards their dad? So much media crap out there that's teaching kids how to be independent with a self righteous attitude. Taking him to court to take time away isnt going to resolve the issue both parents need to tag team on RESPECT!!

Anonymous said...

I was happy ,going out with my daughter. Picking up from her mother house/ day care and enjoying with my family or friends. Now

Since my daughter turn 4years old don't want to go out with me anymore, only if the mother is around or going out with us.
I remember 1 months after my daughter turn 4. She asked me in front of the mother, dad, Mon can go out with us? I said not right now love. Maybe later.. the mother stayed in silence for second, later said , is okay my baby you can go with daddy .

After that moment all started days by days.
My daughter is in love with me only if I see her at the mother house. if I decide pick up her from day care she don't want go with me like before. Only saying I want mami ...

Really? I never force go with me or go out with me like before I told to the mother, this painful to me and will no force I respect that. But something ostensibly not right in here. The mother said the she don't know why..

I have been trying but is none.

This sound like manipulation . Now the mother told in the bad way. That she don't want me Romania talk to her ever again, because one day I refused force my daughter be with me when she don't wanted.. I will not put a trauma to my baby.

What can I do?

Thanks

karen alonge said...

anonymous -
you might check out this article from www.handinhandparenting.org for some ideas about how to handle your situation.

http://www.handinhandparenting.org/news/220/64/I-Only-Want-Mommy-Helping-Your-Child-Feel-Safe-with-Both-Parents

I hope this helps, and please feel free to post another comment with any thoughts or questions on the article.

- karen

Anonymous said...

i have a 4 year old son, my ex has not seen him since he was 2 weeks of age then he took me to court when my son turned 3, to have a contact order. My son has now been saying that he dosen't want to see his dad anymore and claims that his dad smacks him on the face, hand and stomach, he begs me not to take him and kicks and screams in the car all the way there,then flops to the floor and won't go to him. We do not talk as he causes too many arguments infront of my son. i have said that i didn't want to force him to see his dad as it upsets me, then i get very nasty texts on my phone. He has calimed that my son refuses to eat, sleep and drink whilst in his care all the time (my ex had text me this and asking me why) its clear to me that he don't want anything more to do with him. My ex had said that he would take me back to court to force my son to see him please help i don't know what to do now.

karen alonge said...

anonymous -

so sorry you and your son are going through this difficult situation.

I think you'll need an attorney to help you sort all this out.

You might also need to contact social services to report any suspected abuse.

Please seek legal advice as soon as you possibly can (and save all those text messages, voice mails, and texts from your ex... they may be needed for evidence at some point.)

I hope you've got a good friend or family member or counselor to talk with about your feelings, as a situation like this can be very difficult to handle without emotional support.

I wish you both all the best, and wish there was more I could do to help.

- karen

Anonymous said...

My ex is in hospital. Had major operation made me tell our 9yr old daughter that he is away with work. So I did. I don't speak to him only via tex, because he has lied about me taped conversations, tries to catch me out on certain things. I have stuck to all access agreement which has has already broken. Give him all holidays he requested. I have asked for nothing. He is a very controlling person. Now he wants his mother to collect our daughter to go visit him. I had to tell her he made me lie. She is so affraid of hospitals needles etc and has never been in a male ward before. She says she prefers to see him when he is out of hospital. I rang the hospital to see if he was in a ward or a room and to find out what my child might witness....of course he thinks I have put her up to this. Told him I would never ever force her to do anything and he should be thinking of her feelings and how distressed she is. I am the bad which and been told that I have engineered this. My solicitor told me if your child does not wish to go as a mother your job is to protect her from being traumatized ...help

karen alonge said...

anonymous -

I am glad you checked this out with your solicitor, and if he or she is telling you that you don't have to comply with your ex's request that his mother bring your daughter to the hospital, then it seems you can firmly but kindly refuse.

Something else concerns me about your story here -- telling your daughter that her father "made you lie."

I think if we boil it all the way down, the deeper truth is that he asked you to lie, and you chose to comply with his request.

In my opinion, and it's only my opinion, when we tell our kids that someone "made" us do something unethical or immoral, we miss an important opportunity to model taking responsibility for our own choices. This feels like a disempowering message to send.

What I'd recommend as an alternative would be that you hear your ex's demand as a request, you consider it for a while and decide what you believe will be in your daughter's best interest, and then take action accordingly.

In this particular situation, that might sound like this: "I understand that you'd like our daughter to visit you in the hospital. I don't believe it's in her best interest to visit a male ward and witness the trauma and possibly graphic and disturbing images there. So unless you have reason to believe that you will not be leaving the hospital ever again, I'd prefer to wait until you are released to bring her around for a visit. Please feel free to call her as often as you like so you can keep in touch."

It may be that you will choose to lie to your child at some point for reasons that were carefully considered. Or it may be that you decide to share a whitewashed version of the truth. In either case, when the whole truth finally does come out, you'll need to take responsibility for your choice about what to share with her and why, and that's fine.

Whether or not your ex should or is capable of thinking about your daughter's best interest is beside the point. If you are capable of doing so, then it's your responsibility to do it.

If you need support standing up for what you know is right and good, please seek counseling or support from a pastor or the like.

I know it's not always easy to set a good example so your daughter learns how to take responsibility for her actions. You deserve lots of support as you navigate these situations with your ex, and I hope you will find several good, reliable sources for yourself.

good luck,
karen

Anon said...

This was inspirational to me. However, I still don't know what to say to my daughter (age 11) when she says "Why do you make me go there?" As for my particular case, there is no physical abuse. He was emotionally and verbally abusive to me. But I would say he is more impatient and controlling to the kids. But we have a different issue in our case: hoarding. He hoards, which some may say constitute abuse or neglect. He is not an extreme hoarder like on TV, but there are huge piles of dusty random discarded stuff that he collects from various places. I haven't seen the place in months because he avoids having me over. I'll make a point to go today to make sure that it hasn't gotten over the top. But historically he keeps it just to the brink and then cleans it up enough to be bearable. Years of broken promises to clean it up have left the kids with a feeling of powerlessness. I'm not sure what to tell my daughter. My 8 year old son doesn't seem to care.

karen alonge said...

One response to "Why do you make me go there?" could be, "Because he's your dad, and he loves you, and I think it's important that you have a relationship with him."

Truth is, there's comfortable and uncomfortable stuff in every situation and relationship. And while we often can't control the situation or person we are involved with, we usually have some degree of control over what we focus our attention on.

So make sure to inquire about the good times she has with her dad, too. And listen warmly but don't express agreement or become upset when she vents about the not-so-good times.

You might do some research on hoarding to help you come up with a new framework for understanding it and communicating about it with your kids.

In many cases, it's a mental health issue, not a "broken promises" issue. You might be able to help your daughter not to take it personally by explaining that his brain might be making it really hard for him to throw things away for reasons that have nothing at all to do with her, and that it's not a sign that he doesn't care.

Here's a link to get you started:

http://www.ocfoundation.org/uploadedFiles/Hoarding%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf?n=3557

hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

Thanks. That's a great response. I'm going to really work on what you said.