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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

But I Don't Say Anything Bad! I'm Neutral...

Your two home child comes home from the other parent’s house after the first 3-day week-end of the year and announces that they took a surprise trip to Disneyland for the week-end. And they are excited. Talkative, laughing, telling you stories about what they did and funny things that happened. And you find yourself having a hard time being happy and excited back because you are experiencing all kinds of strong reactions to the news. So you work very hard to just stay neutral because you don’t want to say anything bad about the other parent who, in your opinion, should not be spending money on a trip to Disneyland when he or she isn’t paying for _______________. You fill in the blank. I’m sure there is something. So, neutral?

Really? How many topics in your child’s life are you neutral about? Health? School? Toys? Friends? Video Games? Television? Grooming? Manners? Clothes? Sex? Drugs? Alcohol? Cigarettes? Religion? Politics? The truth is that parents aren’t neutral about much of anything in a child’s life and that’s a good thing because adequate parenting means caring, commitment, concern, involvement, engagement, participation. In short, parenting requires all of the things that neutral is not. If we’re really neutral about something, it means we’re unconcerned, nonchalant, not personally connected, casual about our involvement, comfortable with not taking part and comfortable with not giving assistance or support. And that describes someone who is not a good parent when it comes to anything that is important to our child.

No. Neutral is not what parents are toward their child, especially when it comes to the child’s other parent. And if you are really working at being neutral then your child feels it and it doesn’t feel good. How does it feel when someone you care deeply about responds to your need for recognition, love, support and approval with a lack of concern or interest? We all have had that experience in an important relationship. And we all know exactly how it feels. It feels awful and we struggle to understand why that other person that is so vital in our life is treating us as if they don’t love us, they don’t care, as if we don’t matter to them. To a child with a parent working at being neutral about something the child feels strongly about, neutral feels like rejection, abandonment, a lack of love. It feels like Mommy or Daddy suddenly goes away.

So what do you do? You keep your focus on your child and their enthusiasm, not on the topic. Imagine that your child is talking about anyone or anything he or she loves and feels excited about. You’re supporting your child’s sense of wonder and connection to the world. Keep your focus there and you will be able to engage. Say “that sounds fun!” or “You are so lucky!” It’s your job to find a way to connect to your child and support him or her in exploring the world and in feeling safe and happy in the knowledge that they can tell you anything and you will not go away.

If you continue to struggle with staying connected to your child when they are talking about the other parent, then get some help from other adults. Friends, family, a therapist, a spiritual advisor – find someone you can talk to about the adult feelings and reactions you have when the other parent is the focus of the child. Talk it through and practice until you develop the ability to stay focused on your little one. When you disconnect from your child it affects your relationship with him or her in potentially profound ways and you need to work at figuring out how to change that. Being a parent of a two home child is not easy sometimes. It requires skills that are new and different from parenting a child with both parents in one home. Acknowledge that to yourself, remind yourself when you forget how challenging it really is, and reconnect to yourself in a forgiving way.

Friday, January 8, 2010

So...Who Does Own This Jacket?

Most of our kids are back in school after the Winter Break or are about to go back and all the new stuff from the gift-giving frenzy of the holidays is finding a home. For our 2 home kids this can be stressful if there are strings attached to the gifts, especially if it’s not talked about and they have to guess. For example, a young girl gets dressed for school and is ready to walk out the door to catch the bus. Her father says, “Hey. What are you doing? You can’t wear that jacket today. Your Mom is picking you up after school and that jacket belongs here. I bought that jacket. It’s brand new!” Bam! First she heard of it! Silly girl, she thought the gift was for her, not for her Dad or her Dad’s ‘house.’ Of course some parents and step-parents just have to say more, like “you know that nothing ever comes back from your Mom’s house.” Now the happy girl, excited about seeing her friends and showing off her new clothes is angry, resentful, embarrassed, and so on. And why? Because Dad didn’t tell her when he gave her the present that there were restrictions on it. And, by the way, he didn’t tell her as part of the preparation to go back to school and back on the regular sharing schedule. He waited until the last minute when it would absolutely be guaranteed to create some kind of tension.

Now, some of you are probably already having a dialogue with yourself or somebody else about this issue. You may be a person who thinks that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on gifts given to kids…that if you give a gift it belongs to the receiver or it’s not really a gift. Or you may believe it is reasonable for parents of 2 home kids to have some items that always stay in 1 home. Or you may be a parent who resents the other parent ever being able to see or touch anything that was bought with your own money so you make sure that never happens. And so on. There are many points of view on this…and we are not getting in to that part of it. This is about clear communication from the parent to the child and it is about the parent taking responsibility in a direct way for whatever his or her rule is about gifts/stuff bought and given in his or her house.

So who ‘owns’ the jacket and how do you safeguard resources without burdening your children? The discussion about what does and does not go back and forth between the 2 homes should start early. Some parents start it at the time of the parental separation by making sure the child makes choices about what goes to Mom’s house and what goes to Dad’s house from the very beginning. The parent makes it clear just what items are controlled by the parent and which are items the child gets to make the decision about. Sometimes you can communicate this limit when the discussion first starts about something the child wants. Your son or daughter’s birthday is in a few months and they let you know they really want a new bicycle or a PlayStation or Wii or laptop or iPod. Let them know right away if it will be available to go back and forth or if it will be a 1 home gift only.

While it is important to be consistent with your approach, you don’t want to be too rigid about it. For example if the Wii doesn’t go back and forth between homes but the child is having a birthday party sleep over with friends at the other parents house where there is not a Wii and they really want to play Rock Band it would be a great idea to be flexible for that special occasion. The good will you build between you and your child will feel great to both of you. So remember, it’s not that important what limits you set or why they are important to you. What matters is that you are clear and open with your child about what the rules are. It makes going back and forth a little bit easier for everybody!