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Helping Kids Cope with Divorce


By Neil Chethik
(06/21/01)


It's the season of migration for the children of divorce.

Another year of school behind them, millions of American kids are hauling duffel bags, favorite pillows, and yes, grand expectations, as they flock from Mom's house to Dad's. Otherwise ordinary men, meanwhile, are changing their routines, habits, and linens, as they prepare to take on the role of Summer Dad.

Not that the fathers are complaining. Having their children within arms' reach - quite literally, touchable - is pleasure enough for most of them. Some speak of the almost primal contentment they feel when they lay beside their kids in a tent, nestle with them for a bedtime story, or talk with them over a meal at a restaurant.

And yet, as any seasoned Summer Dad knows, visits from the kids are not all sunshine. Routines are upset; emotions roil; clashes are inevitable. To help fathers make it through the normal pressures of summer with the kids -- and to help them realize the deeper pleasures - several experienced Summer Dads share what they've learned.


PRIME THE PUMP

Kids like to know what's coming. So the first duty of a Summer Dad is to talk with your kids before their visit starts; let them know what they can expect from your time together.

Charles Metzker, a Kentucky father of two teens, says that each spring he calls his sons to remind them of the house-rules at his place, and to find out what activities he should arrange for them. Then, Metzker says, he tries to have extra patience as he and his sons "find the comfort zone" for a couple of weeks they're living together.

"The moms can really help" in preparing the children for summer, Metzker says. "I have a good relationship with my ex-wife, and she makes a big difference by building up positive expectations as the kids prepare to come live with me."


ACT NATURAL

There's an urge among many divorced fathers to drop everything and spend each summer moment with their kids. If you've got such an urge, experienced dads say, squelch it.

"While their parents are important to them, kids don't want constant attention, especially as they get older," says Phil Holman, a divorced father of two from Michigan. Holman's two teen-aged daughters, he says, "want to sleep over at their friends' houses, and spend a lot of time on their own. I'm always reminding myself not to hold on too tight."

Holman suggests that fathers slightly reduce their daily work hours, if possible, and take some vacation time over the summer. But otherwise, act as normal as possible.


CREATE MEMORIES

Having fun with the kids is the essence of the season. High on the recreation list are amusement parks, baseball games and movies. Henry Tyszka, of Michigan, says that these can be great relationship-building activities, but that fathers should also consider quieter, more natural settings.

Tyszka recalls taking his son and daughter camping when they lived with him several summers ago. They're still talking about it. Tyszka also found that his two daughters, who live in a big city most of the year, had never been to the country on a clear evening. "One night, we grabbed a blanket and laid down and just looked up at the sky," he recalls. "In my mind, I gave my kids the stars."


GO ONE-ON-ONE

Each child is different, and reacts differently to summers with Dad. Some may want to talk directly about the divorce, or family life; others will want to focus on happier topics. Fathers should allow the child to lead the way in these conversations, and not pry where the child does not want to go. Talk with each child individually.

John Davis of California says that while one of his two sons was quiet and sullen in the first summer after the divorce, the other was furious. "Usually, his anger would surface around setting limits," Davis recalls. "Eventually, we'd both end up in tears.... It was cathartic. It was the acknowledgment that we missed each other."

In addition to the heavy conversations, fathers should spend some fun time alone with each child. Metzker says that through the years, he's asked friends to help with child-care so he can be alone with one child for dinner or an activity. It is while spending time one-on-one with each son, Metzker says, that he sees "the true flowering of the kid's personality."


SAY GOOD-BYE

"There's a point where you start to ... feel the pain of the separation," Metzker says. The kids feel it too, he says, so it's important to acknowledge what's happening, and to say good-bye in an intentional way.

Metzker often does it by saving a special trip for the end of the summer. Sometimes, he'll drive his kids back to their mother's home, several hundred miles away. Holman says that on the weekend before his kids leave his house, he'll usually sit down and talk about how things went, and what each person will carry with them through the year.

"It's a lot like a grief process," he says. "The tendency is to ignore it, avoid it. But I think it's best to recognize it, and take it as a rite of passage."


ENJOY YOUR FREEDOM

While it's hard for him to admit, Davis says that he sometimes looks forward to the end of summer. "I have some feelings of relief," he acknowledges. He's got his own life back. He can see his own friends again. He can keep the refrigerator stocked. Davis says, "Part of the challenge in life is keeping a balance, and there are some advantages in being a part-time parent."





Neil Chethik is author of "FatherLoss: How sons of all ages come to terms with the deaths of their dads" (Hyperion, 2001). He lives in Lexington, Ky., and can be reached through his website, www.FatherLoss.com.





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