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Proactive approach puts control in parents' hands

| Monday, Nov. 17, 2008

Question: When my husband drove his son back to his mother's house and was saying goodbye, his son asked him to hug his mommy, insisting, "Daddy, hug my mommy now! " They complied, and my husband said, "Son, we're hugging." Should requests like this be entertained or ignored?

Answer: Neither. Both choices are reactive approaches. We favor a proactive approach: Anticipate this problem and have a plan in place so you aren't caught off guard. Divorced or separated parents inherently know not to fight in front of their children, but how much affection is appropriate• Thank you for asking this question so we can discuss it.

It helps a child of divorce to know that his parents don't hate each other, but open displays of affection aren't necessary to demonstrate this. This sort of behavior can give a child false hope that the parents will reconcile. We offer this easy rule of thumb: cordial, not cuddly. The goal is a comfortable exchange when divorced parents are in front of their kids -- and that's it. Nothing strained or contrived.

Any child of divorce needs to know that both parents love him and will continue to love him. So, in this case, when the child requested that his parents hug, the parent who was leaving could have scooped the child up in his arms while saying something such as, "Both Mommy and Daddy want to hug you!" Mommy could then add an affectionate "You bet!" with a little hair ruffling for additional emphasis. As Dad continued to leave, he might look over his shoulder and say to the child, "Tell Mommy goodbye and that you love her!" And as the child says his farewells, Dad could simply add, "Bye, Mommy!" and head to the car.

This approach takes the emphasis off the parents' interaction and reinforces their mutual affection for the child. It also places control back in the hands of the parents. The child knows Mommy and Daddy are united in their love for him, and boundaries are set in a way that's comfortable for all the players.

As time moves on, a more affectionate greeting, such as a casual hug, might become appropriate. The key is to consider what your actions say to your children -- and act accordingly.

Jann Blackstone-Ford, Psy.D., and her husband's ex-wife, Sharyl Jupe, authors of "Ex-Etiquette for Parents," are the founders of Bonus Families.

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