This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on August 15th, 2019 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine
Question: I am a divorced dad and don’t see my teenage children as much as I would like due to my work requiring significant travel. We’ve grown apart a lot in recent months and now even when we do see each other, I feel like I don’t even know what to say or ask. My kids seem disinterested in maintaining a relationship with me. They often do not answer my texts or phone calls. I think sometimes they make excuses for not seeing me too. I’m looking for unique ways to help strengthen my relationship with my kids and connect again. Thanks.
What an important and difficult situation, thank you for asking about this, I am sure others can relate. The situation sounds like you need an immediate, (take some vacation time) and go camping, fishing or anything that would give you some extended time together to rekindle a connection.
Let’s start with communication. Often we talk to our kids by asking yes/no questions, questions that can be answered with one word like: “How was your day?” “Fine” “Is Mike coming over?” “Yes.” “Was your test difficult?” “No.” “Did you get your homework done?” You know the drill. This is not conversation, and it is especially brutal when it is on the phone. Instead, ask the questions in such a way that they must provide more information, like: “Tell me something about your day?” “If Mike comes over what do you think you would like to do?” When you are engaged in what they are studying or who their friends are, your questions can be more relevant, allowing for more conversation. Remember that conversation goes both ways. Without burdening them with your troubles, tell them things about yourself. How are they like you? What was important when you were their age, or a story about something that struck you as funny. Send them pictures from your travels. Whatever you do, be genuine. Teens know when you don’t really care. Learn their favorite video games and have them also teach you to play when you are with them. Then you can ask about what levels they have achieved, they will know you understand. Find an app that has a game you can play back and forth, while apart. I know a dad that always has a chess match going with his teen. Teens also prefer texts and many don’t answer calls. Texting a note or picture is like communicating to them that right now, I am thinking about you.
When you are together, you will have to put in some time to plan. Set out to make your short time together meaningful. TV and pizza, as much a kid’s like that, do not really make for relationship building experiences. Ask yourself; are we making memories? Try making your own pizzas with lots of fun ingredients, or go on a hike, fishing, or roller skating. Make some family rituals for when you and your kids are together: like morning waffle making or bike riding. There are a lot of ideas online. If at all possible, take one child along on one of your travels if they are old enough to safely bide their time when you are working. Consider adding a day to the trip to explore, and make memories. If your teens have special events, important sport activities or a role in a play, do whatever you can, alter your schedule when possible, to be able to be there. I have had many people say, “My father never came to one of my games”.
It is important to have fun, make memories, it is also vitally important to be a dad who participates in the heavy lifting of parenting, when necessary. That is why you have no time to lose, to improve those connections with your teens. You will want them to take you seriously and to listen to you when struggles come. One way to do this, if the situation allows, is to have a positive-parenting connection with their mother. Parenting with two parents is no walk in the park. Being a divorced dad, who travels for work, is doubly hard. Don’t let your work be an excuse for not being involved. You might want to try counseling around parenting issues, which can also be done confidentially online, when you travel. Be careful not to put your kids in the middle between you and their mother, by asking what she is doing, if she is dating, or saying things to them about her which upsets them. Kids will naturally want to defend her, which means, you are out.
The other night I was with family in a pizza shop. When looking around the room, I could see dads alone with kids; thinking perhaps they were divorced and it was ‘their weekend.’ One father and teenage son stood out to me, because the teenager looked over my way rather bored and forlorn. Dad was deep in his phone as they ate, scrolling away and texting. This went on for some time. It occurred to me that I would not want to be sitting there either, with no company. The message we send our children and teens, when we are constantly consumed with other things, is that they are not important. They feel invisible to us. This is a set-up for children to develop low self-esteem, a serious and sad condition. As parents we need to be careful of the magnetic draw of our phones and other media, when the kids are around. The natural progression of this situation of the teen in the pizza shop is that he may pull away. Eventually he may find more interesting company than dad.
I hear in your question that you want better. I’m sharing this scenario to help you to think of what other factors are in your behavior, (intentional and unintentional) which might be contributing to your children distancing themselves from you. I wish you success, whatever you do, don’t stop trying. Kids need us, and want us, with changing intensity throughout our lives. As you keep trying to engage you are sending the message that you will always be open to relationship with them.
Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”