Parenting: Dads and Teens often Struggle with their Relationship after the Divorce

Divorce can strain relationships for years. But a team of researchers at Penn State University has found that divorce impacts different family relationships in different ways. The closeness between fathers and teens is harmed the most in a divorce.

Dr. Alan Booth, a professor of sociology and human development, co-authored the study. He found that divorced or not, there’s a tendency for mothers to be more involved with children, especially teens. “Studies indicate that fathers are less involved…,” Dr. Booth reports. “We just don’t have a heavy investment in the kids.”

“As kids grow, they tend to grow away — toward peers, school, and the world. The relationship with the father declines normally, just in the natural course of things,” Booth says, adding that, “When parents divorce, fathers are more likely to let it slide.”

David Vendig, 43, is an exception. It’s been two years since the father of three children, (ages 13, 10, and 7), moved out of the Los Angeles home he shared with his ex-wife. And even though he moved just a few blocks away, it’s not easy to parent post-divorce. Especially a teenager. “Finding alone time with any one of them takes planning and effort,” Vendig says.

Another impediment is internal. The other obstacle is self-doubt. “Not knowing or believing that what I plan — even if it’s just hanging out — is good enough.” Vendig’s concerns are shared by many men. Dr. Booth says that’s because mothers are more comfortable in the nurturing role.

Whatever the circumstances, the Penn State study was clear: fathers and teens have a special set of challenges after divorce. The first is proximity. Dad is often the one who moves out, leaving the kids with the same schools, friends, and address. But his time with the kids is cut down considerably. “It’s just hard for dads to keep up,” Dr. Booth found.

Also, Dad’s new place is often not as comfortable –“I have a small apartment,” Vendig says — and the kids aren’t likely to feel at home. In order to maintain the closeness they had before the divorce, most fathers will have to increase their involvement with their kids. And that’s something the majority of fathers just don’t do, the study shows.

Then there’s bad blood. The conflicts that cause a couple to divorce aren’t resolved when the marriage ends. And that can be a big obstacle to dads maintaining relationships with their kids. Jane Reardon, M.A. MFT, a marriage and family therapist practicing in Los Angeles, says father-child relationships are vulnerable to anger between ex-spouses. “Mothers may find it impossible to contain the hurt rage they experience as a result of the change in their financial status and increased amount of responsibility for childrearing,” she says.

Many women retaliate by badmouthing the ex-spouse, which can poison the children against him. But mothers are not alone in dealing with the fallout of the breakup. Either party’s emotional residue can cast a shadow on the post-divorce relationship with the kids. Vendig explains it well. “If I am not careful about the contact I have with their mother — meaning if I let myself get too close — my feelings of hurt and anger come up and it keeps me from being present with the kids.”

Divorce can affect the kids often decades into the future. In Reardon’s practice, she sees clients — adults in their 20s and 30s –who are still dealing with the aftermath of their parents’ battles. “They now feel fragmented in their recollections,” Reardon says, “and as adults have a harder time claiming their identity and forming sustained intimate relationships.”

That’s just one reason to resolve the issues that led to the divorce, which Penn State researchers found yields a number of dividends, chiefly, her cooperation and support. “If he keeps mom happy, she’ll be less resistant,” Dr. Booth says. Often a mother is the deciding factor in whether, how often, or how much kids see their dad. “If the mother is supportive, she’ll push from her end,” Booth says.

Reardon sees the benefits: “My experience treating adult clients from divorced families shows a direct correlation between the continued involvement of both parents after the divorce and the client’s level of functioning.”

A final obstacle pops up once the parents have moved on to a new relationship. As a psychologist, Reardon treats many children of divorced parents, now grown. She says her clients’ biggest complaint is when either parent attempted to integrate their children too quickly into their new relationship.”

“While divorced dads may be eager to rebuild a family with the new partner, teenagers are typically resistant to the plan,” Reardon says. They often respond by exercising the only power they have — refusing to visit. “Single parents need to be very mindful of their own agendas in trying to blend new families too quickly,” Reardon advises. “The comfort level of the children needs to take precedence over the accommodation of a new partner.”

Dads need to take into account the length of time the family has been separated, as well as the length of the new relationship. Dr. Booth believes the new relationships have a tendency to take time and energy away from the kids, and men need to make sure they choose a new partner who is open to children. It’s important that he select a woman who likes kids and isn’t opposed to being involved with a child. “If a new girlfriend opposes a man’s children,” Dr. Booth observes, “it’s very difficult for the dad to maintain close contact with them.”

The Penn State study did find some heartening news. For one thing, kids themselves can make a big difference in their relationship with their dad. “Kids have an effect on their fathers,” Dr. Booth asserts. If the kids want to maintain the relationship, they will. And that’s something a dad can exert some control over. “It’s important to stay at the front of your child’s mind,” urges Dr. Booth. “Call the child regularly, send letters, send gifts. Continue to keep the child’s attention, even though the child may be mad that dad left.”

It may take a while, even years, but Dr. Booth believes a father’s actions over time do make an impression. Eventually the child will see the dad differently, especially if the dad is really sincere.

Last but not least, divorce, says Penn State researchers, can also have the surprising effect of actually strengthening a dad’s relationship with his teens — something Vendig is finding out first hand. “For me, processing this event has been a long growing process that includes stepping up as a father, probably more than anything else.”

In Vendig’s experience the key to staying close to his son is to accept the process as just that, something that gets easier over time. He urges dads to go easy on themselves. “Be kind to yourself as guilt and shame are bound to come up,” he says. “It will be messy at time, but surrendering to it all can bring freedom. As a father, and as a man.”


Tip 1 : Private, Not Public.

Divorced dads looking to forge close bonds with their teens should think about ways to spend time with their kids that is relatively private, perhaps is just staying home, or visiting the home of family or friends. You can hug the kid, kiss the child, tell jokes. It’s hard to do that in public. Even if you do spend time out of the house, there are ways to make it more personal, like a quiet nature hike, fishing in a boat, or a long-ish drive to a nearby town for lunch. Closer to home, playing board games, video games, or doing something together in the yard all give opportunities for the kind of spontaneous affection that teens crave, but may be too cool to ask for.

Tip 2: Don’t Be a Special Guest.

In many divorced families, time with dad can sometimes have a special occasion quality to it, as if the dad is not a parent, but a guest star in his child’s life. Dr. Booth suggests dads take their child for significant amounts of time at a stretch – like long weekends, or school holidays. The idea is to experience togetherness like a family, not as visitors. Have the child spend several days. Be with them morning, noon, and night. Even if they just do occasional overnights, Dads should make sure time with their teens includes regular household activities, like cooking dinner, doing laundry, completing homework, and just hanging out. It’s important to maintain the rhythms of parenthood.

Tip 3: Set the Rules.

Rule-setting is an important way for fathers and teens to interact. “Fathers are important to teaching a child to grow up and do the right thing,” advises Booth. Part of that is setting the rules, (with the mother’s involvement, of course), enforcing them, and making them stick. According to Booth, that helps the child be better, and do better in school.”

Tip 4: Play Nice with Your Ex.

It’s key for parents to present a unified front to their teens, even if it’s still more of a goal than a reality. “If there is a way for the two parents to find even a fake sense of harmony, they should do so,” says family therapist Jane Reardon. Also known as fake it “˜til you make it”, the idea is for moms and dads to behave the way they would with a business associate, keeping things light and polite, and keeping conflicts far away from the kids. “When problems arise,” Reardon adds, “Parents need to find a way to resolve their issues entirely outside the consciousness of the children.”

Tip 5: Go Slow When Introducing New Partners.

No matter what the age of your child, blending a new family is a tricky proposition. But during the teen years, it can be especially difficult, with the potential to traumatize and fragment a child who is already working overtime to develop a cohesive sense of self. The key to introducing a new partner: slow down. Make your teen gradually aware of the new person in your life, all the while helping the teen process her feelings about the person they may well think of as an intruder.