After getting divorced, dads facing single parenthood often feel unmoored. Many feel they’ve lost a teammate in the parenting struggling. Others find themselves parenting alone — albeit intermittently — for the first time. Exacerbating the practical problems is the emotional context. Kids aren’t all emotionally volatile in the wake of a divorce, but many struggle with the emotional fallout. Given these compounding issues, it’s not surprising that divorced dads often become highly permissive or toy crazy. But giving kids what they want is different than giving kids what they need. Being a great divorced dad is all about managing circumstances to create normalcy while showcasing thoughtfulness and love. It is immensely difficult, but doable long as fathers prioritize self-care.
“Dads need to make sure that they are taking care of themselves if they are going to be able to be the best dad for their kids,” explains Dr. Mark Borg Jr., psychologist and author of Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships. He notes that dads have a propensity to want to ignore their own losses in order and focus on ameliorating the pain their child might be feeling. This is an admirable impulse, but not really a healthy one.
“In order for kids to be able to grieve and mourn and move into their new lives they need to believe — and see — that their dads are okay,” Borg says.
When fathers don’t allow themselves to heal, it sets up a situation where children can adopt a caretaking role, according to Borg. That’s simply unhealthy for everyone involved. And importantly, the caretaking may not come in the form a father might expect. Instead of sweetness, kids may act out with disruptive behaviors in an attempt to distract preoccupied dads.
“Figure out what you need for yourself,” urges Borg. “Accept love and support from family members, friends, and colleagues. Do not drop whatever it is you do to feel good, to feel loved, to feel empowered and even attractive so that you can put all your energy into helping your kids.”
Of course part of what makes self-care so important is that it allows fathers to regain their emotional stability. That’s very important, considering children thrive on structure, routine and consistency, whether it be emotional or physical.
How to Be a Great Divorced Dad
- Take time for self-care: Denying your own needs can cause children to act as caretakers.
- Don’t overcompensate: Trying to make things better with material goods and permissiveness might just prolong the pain.
- Be consistent with discipline: Children want to know parents can be trusted to keep a family life stable and structured.
- Spend quality time: Regardless of how long fathers might have with kids, it’s important that the time spent is active and interactive. No passive TV watching or game playing.
- Redefine family traditions: Some traditions may be impossible, so it’s important for fathers to create new ones with their children.
- Keep it simple: No need to spend enormous amounts of money on fun. A kid just wants to be close to their dad.
- Keep it Civil: Absolutely do not engage in hostile behavior with an ex-spouse. Keep conflicts out of site and never tear down the other parent in front of your kid.
According to Dr. Brie Turns, assistant professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Fuller Theological Seminary, the structure a divorced dad provides is strengthened by clear rules and discipline. “It’s very easy for fathers, especially those who only see their children every other weekend and one weekday, to pass on disciplining their children and giving them consequences,” Turns explains. “By providing consequences, fathers teach their children that they also follow the rules.”
However, Turns notes that consistency isn’t enough. Dads also need to ensure their relationships have a good dose of novelty. There’s still a need for fun. The last thing a dad wants is for his time with his child to be spent in a structurally stable but boring rut.
“Spend quality time, not quantity time with your children,” Turns says. “Your children will remember going to the parks, playing boards, and going on ice cream dates. They won’t remember watching movies together or sitting in the same room with you as you do work.”
Importantly, none of those activities are high-ticket asks like a vacation to Disney or toy-store shopping sprees. And that’s really the point, according to certified divorce coach and financial planner Randall R. Cooper. “Because family life with your children has changed now, you need to create new family activities with your kids,” he says. So there’s actually an opportunity for a dad to really define what family is when he’s with his children. That’s important considering the idea of the family may have previously been toxic prior to the divorce.
Cooper suggests that simple activities are often the best way to reestablish what it means to be an active and bonded family. “Go have a picnic for the day. Maybe take a ball to kick around. Laugh, roll on the ground, get grass-stained, and have a blast,” he suggests. “Remember, it is the experience together as Dad and children that counts, not how much you spend.”
Still, while it’s important for dad to build a new idea of family, and find a solid identity, that doesn’t mean it’s open season on moms. Licensed marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind explains that divorce is a good opportunity for fathers to rise above the fray.
“Divorced dads can make sure to remain calm even if their ex is getting conflictual,” Ziskind says. “A dad can also be the one to rise above and not feed the fire if a conflict has already begun.”
By being thoughtful about his own needs and careful about what he says with his ex-spouse, a father can find a sense of strength. Adding stability in discipline and novelty in play will also help a divorced dad be a good dad and guide their children through the difficulties of watching their family be redefined.