Monday, January 28, 2008

Bringing up teens - a tough call for separated Dads

Photo by .Tatiana. (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 22nd January, 2008:

Adolescence, to put it mildly, is a time when teenagers separate out from their parents.

Consider, then, the difficulties which non-resident fathers have in maintaining relationships with their teenage children.

Not only have the teens reached the stage where Dad is no longer perfect but Dad isn't there to give them the attention they want.

It is, of course, very easy to criticise fathers in this situation for not spending enough time with their teens.

But Dad probably has a job to do, complete with commuting and may have another household to go home to as well.

On top of this the teenagers themselves have to fit in study, drama, football, dancing and time out with their friends.

So co-ordinating the contact is not easy and takes an effort. It is especially difficult to do if the teens' mother and father are not on speaking terms.

A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family gives some idea of how the sense of closeness between teenagers and a divorced father suffers in this situation.

I am assuming here that it is the mother who has custody of the children.

The research was derived from a national, long-term study of adolescents in the United States.

Young people were interviewed at the beginning and end of a five year period. Their parents were together at the start of the five years but, by the end, some had divorced.

At the start, 57 per cent of the young people said they were very close to their fathers.

By the end, this had fallen to 48 per cent where the parents were still together and to 25 per cent where they were divorced. Closeness to the mother was unaffected by the divorce.

Three things strike me as important about these figures.

The first is that closeness between father and teenagers suffered whether the parents were divorced or together - though to a greater extent, of course, where there had been a divorce. This, I expect, is part of the usual war of independence that goes on between adolescents and the old folks.

The second striking point is that, given the way the study was done, all the divorces had occurred relatively recently when the teenagers were interviewed the second time. At this stage emotions would still be very raw and the father's 'rating' could, perhaps, be expected to suffer as he is the absent parent.

The third point is that we do not know how long this absence of closeness might last. The storms of adolescence die down and are generally followed by a greater closeness between parents and 'children'.

There is no reason why this should not also occur where the parents are divorced.

Nevertheless, the findings underline the fact that separated fathers have to make a special effort to keep involved with teenage children.

For this they need to be able to cooperate with the mother. That is easier said than done. Parents who are still together often fight over how to handle their teenagers. Such fights, I suspect, are just as likely to occur when the parents are apart.

But unless they are able and willing to cooperate, the scene is set for major conflict.

Other research suggests that once teenagers become fairly independent, they may shuttle between parent and parent to get what they want.

If Mammy is being a pain in the neck, then a few days with Daddy seems like a good idea. If one parent won't shell out for tickets for Oxegen, then maybe the other one - alright, Daddy again - will.

This again points up the necessity for separated parents to talk to one another about these issues and to try to reach some sort of accommodation about them.

Parents living apart, whether married or unmarried, can get help with with reaching such an accommodation from the Family Mediation Service which is part of the Family Support Agency and has centres around the country.

Its website is at and the telephone number is (01) 611 4100. They're worth a call if you're living apart and fighting over the teens.

See also: Staying close to teens is harder for separated Dads.

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