By Ronald B. Cohen, MD
It’s almost back to school time and The Million Father March, sponsored by the Black Star project, will take place on August 14, 2013. The march will take place in nearly 800 cities across America and encourages fathers to take their children to the first day of school. Among those dads are the fathers who have been divorced. How important is it for divorced dads to maintain and build a relationship with their children post-divorce? How do fathers change in status and relationship position after they get divorced?
Dads often have a difficult time figuring out how to have a meaningful relationship with their children after their marriages end. As former spouses, each parent must simultaneously develop new rules and behaviors with each other while they find new ways of relating independently with their children. Children do best when they maintain relationships with both parents as well as extended families, and are not triangulated into parental disputes.
More than thirty years ago John W. Jacobs, MD reviewed psychological literature related to experiences faced by divorcing fathers. He concluded that:
- Fathers have a critical role in the normal development of children.
- Parenthood is a maturational phase of male psychological development.
- Children deprived of their fathers as a result of parental divorce, may suffer from a wide range of emotional problems.
- Divorced fathers often suffer when separated from their children.
- Children and parents do better when there is greater continuity of contact.
A father’s greatest fear is severely restricted contact, or even complete loss of any meaningful relationship with his children. And, according to Constance Ahron’s three decade long follow-up and reevaluation of adult children of divorce has shown that fathers and children can and do maintain long-term positive interactions. Given that it is the level of ongoing parental conflict and bitterness that is detrimental to children, many father-child relationships can be salvaged and improved post-divorce.
Nurturance of familial relationships requires reliability, consistency and genuine interest. Loss of their relationship with their fathers is often the most psychologically damaging effect of divorce on children. Children do better when the custody agreement includes free access to both parents.
Healthy adjustment of children without long-term psychological damage requires that divorced parents restructure their lives in ways that allow children to continue their relationships with both parents. Child adjustment is best when there is a solid home base, when biological parents can cooperate in co-parenting without ongoing conflict, and when the noncustodial parent maintains reliable contact, caring, and support.
Ronald B. Cohen, MD is an experienced systemic family therapist and board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in helping families adapt and heal at times of unexpected crises and stressful life-cycle challenges. Dr. Cohen is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and an Affiliate Member of the American Academy of Marital and Family Therapy.