Here’s an excerpt from an email I received recently:
I have two incredible kids, ages seven and nine, 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 over dramatizing, 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.