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Together Time

Together Time

By Liza N. Burby

Twelve-Year-Old Kyle Ohlenschlaeger of Northport, N.Y. says he wishes he had more one-on-one time with his dad. It doesn’t happen often enough during his every-other-weekend visits.

“I told him that once, when I was about 7,” says Kyle, who has two young half-siblings, “and I got the sense he knew that already. I felt like I didn’t really know him, and I didn’t get to ask him many questions; we just had basic conversations about school and sports.”

“I really like to be with my dad,” Kyle says. “Mostly I like to talk to him. I’m involved in five different sports, so on the weekends when I see him, he has to drive me to games and we talk on the way. And every other chance I get to be alone with him, I take-like if he has to go to the supermarket, I go with him.”

Having time alone with their non-custodial parent can be a precious commodity for children of divorce, who may have to share with their own siblings as well as assorted new siblings. And that non-custodial parent most often is the father-90 percent of children live with their mother after divorce, according to a recently published study in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, a professional publication for marriage and family therapists. With summer vacation fast approaching, setting aside private time with each of your children is worth the complex logistics that often are involved, experts say. “Any parent, even those in intact families, needs to make special time to be alone with their children,” says Eileen Schneyman, program director of the Stepfamily Center of the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack, N.Y.

“It doesn’t have to be something exotic. It needs to be a time to put aside the issues of the day and open the lines of communication. It’s important for all kids to feel they can come to both parents and get unconditional love without outside distractions.”

Kyle’s father, Kurt Ohlenschlaeger, who lives in Huntington, N.Y. says he’s aware of his son’s wish. “Most definitely, I want more time with him, too. He’s an incredible kid. With his athletic schedule, I’m driving him around a lot, so we get time alone. And I stay up with him at night so we can talk and joke together. But there’s always room for improvement.”

Time alone doesn’t require an elaborate plan. In fact, Schneyman says, “Noncustodial parents have to walk a fine line between giving individual attention in the short time you have together and not turning it into ‘Disneyland Dad’ time so Mom’s house is boring in contrast.” William Kaplan, director of the Center for Psychiatric Legal Services at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y. agrees. “All your child yearns for is contact with you,” he says. “It’s a cop-out to say you’ve given him all the wants. Instead, find out what he needs.”

According to Wade Horn, president of the nonpartisan National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg, Md., what’s important to children of divorce is not so much the frequency of visits but their context. “Part of the problem is that fathers try to make the time too special when what kids really need is a good, ordinary, everyday father who engages in a combination of love, nurturing and positive regard, along with a willingness and ability to set limits,” he says.

Eric Lebow of Port Jefferson, N.Y. is the father of three daughters and lives with his girlfriend, who has adult children of her own. “My children have not expressed needing more time along with me, but I make sure it happens,” Lebow says. “I helped my 6-year-old learn to ride a two-wheeler, and we read together. I walk the dog or cook with my 10-year-old, and I do different things with my oldest (who is 13). Usually, the girls get their own night with Dad apart from their siblings as well.”

But it can be hard, Lebow says, to conform to his children’s daily routine after a week of not seeing them, a struggle shared by many non-custodial parents.

“If you don’t have your child’s biological rhythms down, it’s hard. They don’t necessarily say they’re hungry at age 6, so you need to know the normal routine for your child or you’ll have no idea why she’s cranky,” says Geoffrey L. Greif, author of “Out of Touch: When Parents and Children Lose Contact After Divorce. “Preserve their basic routines for meals and bedtimes. This is what it’s like to be a good parent. “To do so, of course, you have to speak with your ex. “But do yourself a favor of knowing your child’s routines,” Kaplan says. “Otherwise you’re exposing yourself to frustration.

One of the main complaints Joan Atwood hears from children in therapy is that there’s “no space for me. I have to sleep on a pullout couch.” She is director of the graduate program in marriage and family therapy at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “Children should have a place, preferably a room, where they can sleep and put their belongings. They need a drawer for their clothes and supplies like crayons, toys, video games and books.” For Schneyman, “The biggest complaint…from children of divorce is that they used to have time alone with their parent and now the new family is always there. They say they want to go out alone with Dad without the stepsiblings and half-siblings, but (the others) want to come, too, or their step mom insists they have to eat as a family.”

None of this means a parent’s new family should disappear. The children you already had, Atwood says, need to see the importance of the new people in your life. Work toward incorporating everyone into the family. Lloyd Levine of Holbrook, N.Y. has his 8-year-old daughter, Kelsey, in his life four days a week. Since his fiancé and her 5-year-old son live with him, he tries to make sure Kelsey has one-on-one time with him. “She recognizes she has to share, but we make it a point to have time alone every day, even if it’s five minutes,” Levine says. “On Sunday, when I take her to Hebrew school, we make a big thing of going for doughnuts together. Kelsey’s not a big talker, and I find this time alone is a great way to check in with her, to see if anything is bothering her.”

In blending your families, “Do what comes naturally,” Horn suggests. “Eat together as a family, but do special things with your child from the first marriage that you naturally do together.”

Schneyman adds, “Help your child understand that it’s OK to want to be alone with your parent, but you may not always get as much time as you want.

Which is the same situation in any family.” Right now, Kyle said, he is looking forward to a summer trip with his dad, step-mom, half-siblings-whom he says h





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