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Responsible Divorce mindful vs mindless

Relationship with the non-custodial father: Two Frequently Asked Questions

By Thalia Ferenc

Question 1:
I have joint legal custody of my two children, boys ages 3 and 6. My ex-wife is going to remarry in a few months and has been encouraging the boys to call her fiancé Dad "if they want to". The 6 year old is adamant that he does not want to and the three year old goes back and forth. What is the appropriate thing to do here? I am very involved and am not ashamed to say how much this hurts me.

It is painful to feel as if someone else is taking your place with your sons, and having them call their new stepfather by your name can certainly make it feel that way. Of course, in reality, your children will always know who their "real" Dad is regardless of what word they use to call either one of you.

It is less disruptive for all concerned to have a father and a stepfather called by different names so that you, and anyone else (teachers, relatives, friends, etc) know who the child is referring to, without having to interrupt and ask, "Which Dad?" Many families use a name for a stepdad that will still identify him as a parental figure. Thus, names like Papa, Popsy, Pasha, Dad (as opposed to Daddy), ethnic variations of father such as Pere or Padre, and any number of made-up pet names, like Baba, Senshi, and even "Step" could be used for a stepfather. (I've really heard all of these and many more.)

This new member of their family is coming in while they are relatively young and will play an important part in their lives. Don't panic. So will you. Children can only benefit by having more people to love them. And they never forget who their "real" father is, no matter how many other people come into their lives. Keep up the frequent contact and involvement and you will always have a secure corner of their hearts.

I'd like to recommend a book that might be helpful for all the adults in this situation. Its called “The Good Divorce” by Constance Ahrons and it has lots of excellent ideas on minimizing the damage and forming a new "bi-nuclear" family for your children.

Question 2:
My husband and I are getting a divorce. Our seven year old son asks me questions like, “Why isn't Daddy coming home? When will Daddy be here?” His father will not call him or come by right now because he says that seeing our son makes him too emotional and he doesn't want to be emotional in front of him. I want them to see each other and be near each other. My son has been disobeying me and arguing about everything. I worry that he isn't telling me how he feels about what’s happening.

Your son IS expressing his feelings, he’s just not using words to do so. His misbehavior is an outlet for his anger, and, because you are the one who's there, you receive the brunt of it. You are quite right that he needs to see his father frequently, whether Dad is emotional or not. He needs to have Dad tell him that he still loves him, and that he didn't move out to be away from him. He needs to hear from Dad directly that Dad will never stop being his father, and that grown-ups can divorce a husband or wife, but they can never ever divorce their son. Kids of his age do wonder about, and fear, these issues.

You can help him find more constructive ways to express his feelings. This is a good time to provide paints and pastels and finger paint and clay, because if it's difficult for him to say what he's feeling, he can express himself nonverbally through art materials. Never ask what the
art work is, because he may not know, especially if it is an unconscious expression of feelings. A better comment is "Tell me about your picture."

It is also helpful to get some children's books about divorce, either from the bookstore or the library. He may be able to read Dinosaur's Divorce himself, and it answers many questions he may never ask about divorce. All such books dispel misconceptions, reassure him that other children go through this, too, and there are ways to cope.

An excellent book for you, and for his father, is “Growing Up with Divorce”, by Neil Kalter, PhD. This book gives a wonderful picture of how children experience their parents' divorce, and what you can do and say to help them through it. You might also check with your library or mental health providers to see if you can locate a children's divorce support group. These are enormously helpful for kids, and are available in many communities.

I wish you and your family good luck in this difficult transition time. Always remember that children do need two parents, even if they live apart.

Thalia Ferenc, MSW, MA, CSW is a psychotherapist in Kentwood, MI. She works on parenting plans and coordination, as well as child custody evaluations. See website.

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