Dear Dr. Jann. I have been a bonusdad, as you call us, for a little more than a year now. I have a great relationship with my “bonussons,” but one thing really bothers me. They are usually pretty affectionate—except when we drop them off at their dad’s house. They give their mom a hug good bye, but then we all stand around awkwardly. On the rare occasion when their mother takes them from our house to their dad’s house I get good-bye hugs. I think they feel in the middle and I don’t know what to do to help them.
Dr. Jann says: There’s good news and bad news when kids act like this—the good news is that they like you. The bad news is their positive feelings for you actually tests their allegiance to their dad. They don’t want their dad to feel as if they have chosen you over him, so they hide their feelings for you when their dad is around. It’s a lot of pressure on them—and you are wise to look for ways to help.
Divorced parents often secretly worry that the bonusparent will replace them in their children’s eyes, and in response, inadvertently act in ways that place their kids right in the middle. If the dad is not openly making comments, his actions may have given his sons the impression that you are the enemy. You can help by raising them to understand that they can love their dad and still have a good relationship with you—and let Dad know he need not fear. You will continue to promote his positive relationship with them.
Old school divorce and remarriage dictated that parents and bonusparents rarely talked, but it’s obvious that you both live with the boys at different times and are performing similar tasks. This puts you in direct competition with each other and if you don’t adopt a new attitude about divorce and remarriage, the kids will continue to be stuck right in the middle. The only way not to step on each other’s toes is to talk to each other and coordinate efforts. We’re not saying go play golf together, but don’t be afraid to talk to each other and establish ground rules about your responsibilities to the kids.
Another good way to take the pressure off the kids is by acknowledging how lucky they are to have such a great dad and how you think he is lucky to have them. Don’t prevent phone calls when they are with you and make sure they feel comfortable talking about their dad in front of you. Do your best not to invade their territory—if dad and the boys are planning a camping trip on their weekend together, don’t plan one the weekend before to overshadow their big day or plan another special outing with friends of the family when the boys are scheduled to go with their dad. Be careful what you say about him when the kids are present.
Sounds like it’s all up to you? Not really. You just asked first.