Single Dads – Building a New Relationship with Your Children

by Gary Gilles

You can build a new relationship with your children. It takes time and deliberate effort. But the payoff is worth it.

Single parenting is not what you had in mind when you started the relationship with your child’s mother. But here you are. You may have come to this place a long time ago or just recently; by choice or by force; with custody or visitation. But regardless of how you got here or what your arrangement is, you are the father of one or more children. And those children need an involved father whatever their age.

The research overwhelmingly shows that children, even from divorced families, that maintain a close, consistent, long-term relationship with their father are better emotionally adjusted, have higher self-esteem, experience fewer behavioral problems, and show greater social competence, than those without such contact.

The cost

But these benefits to the child come at a price. And the cost isn’t measured in dollars and cents but in the quality and strength of the emotional bridge you build between you and your child. This implies hard work and the use of skills that some dads may not feel they possess.

But skills can be learned and fears overcome if you are willing to take some risks and try some new ways of relating. The potential payoff is so big for you and your child that it’s hard to resist not giving it a shot. Here are some sound principles that are like steps along that bridge for enhancing your relationship with your child.

Listen actively to their struggles

If you’re divorced there’s a very good chance that your child is hurting as a result of the split but may not be able to tell you. Your child needs an outlet for these emotions as well as other struggles they may be going through. One of the two best people to help them find an exit point for these emotions is you. But you’re also very likely to never hear it from them because they may be afraid of hurting your feelings, or making you angry. So if an emotional connection is going to be made it will probably need to be initiated by you.

First, in an age-appropriate way, invite your child to tell you about their feelings whenever they want. Start by showing them how. Tell them about an emotion you recently had about something in your life without burdening them with the details.

Second, listen carefully for embedded emotion in normal conversation. For instance, say your daughter tells you about a girl that is constantly picked on at school because of the way she acts. Rather than just listen, use it as an opportunity to probe her thoughts and feelings more. You might ask, “How do you feel toward that girl?” “How do you feel toward the kids who are being mean to her?” and so on. The idea is to use real life situations to learn more how your child responds internally to particular situations.

Third, be willing to ask your child about his or her own emotion about the breakup of the family. It might seem bold, but you could ask your son, for instance, if he ever felt angry about the divorce. Or your daughter whether she struggles with having to go back and forth between two homes. These are tough questions that can be matched by tough answers.

Respond with grace

Your response will determine whether the door stays open for more emotional disclosures or closes with a slam. If your son, for instance, tells you he is angry about the divorce and that you’ve ruined his life, try first to draw him out instead of explaining the details of your decision or countering him. Ask him what he is specifically angry about, how his life seems ruined, how he is getting through these tough times, etc.  Don’t be sarcastic, put him down, shame him for feeling this way, or try to “fix” the strong emotions he is talking about.

By asking him to tell you more without opposing him, you are communicating a willingness to enter into his emotion. Without actually speaking the words, you say, “I am not afraid of what you feel right now. In fact, I really want to know. I care about you so much that I want you to tell me even if it hurts.”

And some things your child has to say may hurt you. But until those emotions are cleared out like brush from a dense forest, the work of building that relational bridge is on hold.

Validate the emotion

As you listen to your child’s emotion try to step into her shoes; attempt to see how this would look and feel if you were her age and in her circumstances. To do this you need to continue deferring your need to correct your child or explain your perspective. The immediate need is for you to validate her emotion by saying something like, “I can see how you might feel this way.” By those few simple words you take her struggle out of the realm of craziness and move it into that which is normal. As you normalize her struggle you also shorten the emotional distance between you and her. You are communicating that you understand her, that you think her emotion is valid and you would possibly feel similar if you were in her place.

Speak your peace

Having worked hard to hear, respond and validate the emotion of your child you can now offer your perspective. For instance, you might tell your son that the divorce was very hard for you as well, and still is. You might tell him that you are very sorry that the breakup has caused him so much pain, that you are committed to helping him through it, or that you would like to continue to revisit this topic whenever he wants.

But notice that there is no encouragement to dump your pain on your child, talk them out of their pain, rehash the rationale for divorce, etc. The reason is because none of that will strengthen the relationship you have with your child. In fact, it has the greatest chance of creating distance between the two of you. Your child’s greatest need is to know that you love him, are committed to him regardless of his feelings, and want to be an actively involved not only with his external world, but his internal one as well.

If you need someone to help you work out your pain, seek professional help. This is someone who is trained to listen, empathize and offer perspective in an effort to help you move on with your life and be the best father you can be to your child.

To learn more about how you can speak to your children in a way that will strengthen your communication and trust, download my free e-book called How to be an Emotionally Intelligent Parent.

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