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Holiday Angst

Holiday Angst

By Liza N. Burby

When Ralph, a divorced father who lives in Setauket, N.Y. insisted that his 14-year-old daughter stick to their visitation schedule after she had canceled two weekends in a row, she came back with, “Dad you’re ruining my social life.” When she finally did agree to see her father, he says, she looked him in the eyes over dinner at a diner and said, “You know, I could be doing something else.”

Bob Haley of Hicksville, N.Y., another divorced father, recently had a similar experience. He tries to be understanding about the busy schedules his children-a daughter, 21, and son, 19-have. Still, Haley was hurt and disappointed when the son, on his first trip back from college at Thanksgiving, ran out of time before seeing his father. “He went to his mom’s for the holiday, then saw his girlfriend and friends, and the next thing I knew, he was getting a ride to the bus to return to school,” says Haley, who is remarried and has two daughters.

Of course, it’s normal for teens to want to spend more time with their peers than with their parents, regardless of the parents’ marital situation. And the activity-packed holiday season makes visitation more difficult. But when you’re the non-custodial parent-and that is usually the father-already limited in time with your children, it can be hard not to take it personally.

Seeing his daughter and son was much easier when they were younger, Haley says, when he and his former wife took turns with holidays and he saw his children regularly. “But when they were around 16 or 17 and began dating and going out with friends, it became more difficult and required flexibility on all our parts,” he says. “I try not to give my kids a hard time about their schedules, because I know they want to be part of my life. Still, Dad comes last.”

Regardless of how your teens make you feel, don’t back down on your need to see them, advises Christy Buchanan, author of “Adolescents After Divorce.” “You’re more likely to have a continuing relationship when you have regular visitation. If not, especially when they’re teens, it’s easier for them to give it a miss,” she says. “Insisting on some form of a visit sends a message to adolescents about the importance of relationships with both their parents.”

That’s just what Ralph, who asked that his real name not be used, tried to do. He met his older daughter’s protests by being firm. “I told her I understood she wanted a social life but that our relationship was important, too. I said we’d have to compromise because I wasn’t going to let us drift apart.”

When his son got back to his dorm, Haley phoned. “I said I didn’t want that to happen again. I understand that at his age he’d rather be with anyone other than his parents, but I told him he has to find time to see us. We’ll be spending Christmas Eve together. “Visits may be especially difficult for teens if they have to leave town to get to you and give up activities. “But the teen should know how important the relationship is, “Buchanan says. “If it’s a good one, spending time together over the holidays can continue to enhance your relationship and might be worth the sacrifice of a party.”

If your teen refuses to see you, pay attention, says Sandra Kaplan, vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. “Take a look at the quality of the relationship when you’re together. Are you both enjoying being together, despite his initial protests?” she asks. “If not, your relationship needs mending. Speak with your ex. You both may want to get involved in post-divorce treatment for your child’s sake.”

Certainly, teens’ relationships with the non-custodial parent will be influenced by the custodial parent’s support-or lack of it, points out Alan Finkel, founder of the Divorce Mediation Center in Commack, N.Y. “In an ideal situation, the custodial parent will be flexible about visitation and validate their child’s relationship with their father,” he says. “Both parents must support the other parent’s authority, and neither should ever bad-mouth the other to their child.”

A mixture of flexibility and compromise usually can help non-custodial parents define a balance everyone can live with, says Eileen Schneyman, a program director of the Stepfamily Center of the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack, N.Y. Going over your children’s schedule with them; you may not be aware of a school activity. “Give your teen time to openly discuss the situation with you rather then attacking with, ‘Why don’t you want to spend time with me?’ Also, it’s not a good idea to spring plans on teens, so give them some advance notice if you want to avoid a major problem,” she says.

Get involved in their activities when you’re able-chaperone a school dance or chauffeur them and their friends, Kaplan says. Encourage them to invite friends to your home, which lets them know you value that part of their lives. Finkel suggests thinking creatively. For example, if a child can’t join you for the holiday, create a new one to spend together, perhaps Boxing Day. “The only way to get through the teen years is to be flexible and compromise,” says a divorced father in East Northport, N.Y., who lives near his 15-,17- and 19-year-old daughters and 12-year-old son. “It was hard to adjust at first to their social lives. But we look for ways to do things together - with their friends along. And I have a lot of patience. I look at it as another longer phase, and once we come through the teen stretch, I know they’ll come around eventually. Meanwhile, my son still likes to spend time with me.”

This article first appeared in Newsday. Reprinted with permission of the author. This article may not be distributed without the consent of Liza N. Burby.

Copyright 2001 Liza N. Burby.

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