Hi, Dr. Meg,
I have a question.
How can I help my boyfriend become a better dad when his sons are living with his ex, and she does not support a relationship between him and his sons? Unfortunately, he allowed her to control when and if he saw his sons while they were separated (always hoping they could reconcile), so he never had any time with his sons alone. He did attend every school event and sports activities during those five years, and now that they are divorcing, he has had to get a court order for any type of visitation.
Now his sons do not want to be with him unless he takes them out somewhere where they do not have to interact with him. As a mom myself, I have never understood why people play games with their children or think they are pawns to use to get back at their ex! I grew up without my father because he chose to not be a part of our lives, and then with a step dad who was so wounded from his first marriage that our relationship did not evolve until I had my own children.
I understand what these boys are feeling; however, here is a case of a dad who is being slammed up against a brick wall at every step of the way to have a relationship with his sons.
Do you have any advice or suggested resources that might help us?
Dear Concerned Girlfriend,
Your boyfriend’s predicament is, unfortunately, a common one.
First of all, your boyfriend needs to find out why his sons don’t want to be with him. You say their mother has driven their dad away, but is there more? You need to help your boyfriend make sure there aren’t other reasons that the boys are uncomfortable with him.
Has he yelled at them in the past, criticized them, or done something that makes them not trust him? Often boys shy away from their dads because they are afraid or don’t trust them. If this is the case, the best thing that you can do is help your boyfriend correct his mistakes in order to allow the boys to trust him again.
If this isn’t the case, then he needs a good lawyer. Unfortunately, many parents do use the kids to get back at an ex spouse and as horrible as this is, the one who fights hardest usually wins. Every son needs his father not only present in his life, but also actively involved. If the boys’ mother wants to poison them against their father, he can’t control what she says. But he can fight for time with his sons and he should.
Additionally, since his sons feel negatively toward him, your boyfriend needs to work that much harder NOT to behave like his ex. This is hard, but he needs to take the high road here. He needs to refuse to criticize her. He needs to show (rather than tell) his sons that what she says is wrong. If they are uncomfortable in any setting with him where they don’t have to interact, then he needs to start there and work up to spending time with them where more interaction is involved (like hiking, camping, etc.).
He needs to start where they are comfortable and then help them begin to enjoy being with him. No, he doesn’t need to spoil them, but he does need to make sure they’re comfortable. You need to encourage him to hang in there for the long haul. His boys will come around and want to be with him but it’s going to take months or years, not days. This is just the way it is because divorce really makes kids feel a bit crazy.
Finally, you need to honor your boundaries as the girlfriend. Let your boyfriend be the dad and don’t try to be their mother. Also, you need to show his sons that you respect them. The best way to do this is to show respect to their dad. This means, no living together or spending the night when the boys are around. They will be far more comfortable with their dad if they see him doing the right thing.