Dear Dr. Jann: My ex and I are getting a divorce. We have two children, seven and three, who see their dad every other weekend. He left because he met someone else and she and her two-year-old son spend every weekend at his house even when my kids are there. How can I get him to realize that he needs to spend some time with just his kids? I have talked to him about this, but he doesn’t seem to understand how important it is.
Dr. Jann says: I don’t like to see the words, “How do I get …” although quite a few do begin their emails to me using those very words. “How do I get him/her to____(you fill in the blank). The answer is still the same–you can’t control the other home. You can lead by example, but telling someone how he or she should act, especially if you are no longer married to them, rarely gets the desired result. As a matter of fact, many will do exactly the opposite from what you ask, just to make you angry.
Of course you are right, time alone with the kids is one of the most important gifts a parent can give their children—especially if the separation is new and the kids are reeling from the changes they face. And, it is not uncommon for newly divorced parents to loose sight of how important this is when their head is turned by a new romance. That’s when many introduce a new partner far too soon and are caught by surprise when things backfire. From the kids not accepting the new partner, to the ex being up in arms about the new partner spending too much time with the kids—few understand how they contribute to these problems and as a result, blame “divorce” or “the ex “ or even “the courts” for the children’s inability to adjust. When, in actuality, if more time was spent noting their child’s reactions, the answer would be very clear—to ensure their children’s positive adjustment, they need to spend more one-on-one time together.
The best thing you and the children’s father can do is to be observant and follow the children’s lead. If, for example, your seven-year-old is anxious to see Daddy and openly talks about playing with the two year old, things are probably fine. If, one the other hand, he is sullen before the visit and complains that Daddy is never just with him and his sibling, that’s when it’s time to discuss it with Dad. You will get the best response if you use the child’s desires as the basis of your observation, not what you feel is right or wrong, or even what professionals say.