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The Competent Parent: Dad Returns After Separation

Welcome to our online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.


Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m a Mom of two wonderfully loving boys 3 and 5 years old, who are very intuitive, as most children are. My husband of 11 years and I separated a year after the second child was born. After two years of being separated he now wants to come back home and yet we’ve done no therapy and have no communications tools to do things right this time. As much as I want him to come home, I feel anxious, stressed and happy all at the same time.  And I have no idea how to bring him back into our home.  Furthermore, usually when he his around the energy is negative in a strange way because he is very judgmental.  We all want to be together but it still just doesn’t feel right for me.  How do I make this work?  I know it is best for the whole family to be peacefully together in the same home, but how do I explain his return to our children? In addition how do I allow my husband to come back into our bed and at the same time start having my children sleep in their own beds?

Sincerely, Dazed and Confused


Dear Dazed and Confused,

The important thing about Dad’s return is that you and he are committed to making it work.

Before we get to the sleeping arrangements, you and your husband need to get back to being a couple.  Counseling is a good way to explore what makes the two of you good for each other while also exploring and resolving areas of conflict.  And if you are good for each other, each of you will be better with the children.

Counseling can also help you to become a united force in parenting.  What role is Dad currently playing with his children?  Outings?  Meals?   If he has been more of a visiting relative than a parent, you and he need to work out sharing discipline goals and strategies.  One benefit to single parenting is that no one contradicts your authority in matters of discipline.  However, the advantage of having two united parents is that the children hear the same rules and experience the same consequences from Mom or Dad.  Consistency helps them to know what is expected of them and what the consequences are if they don’t follow family rules.

Is the “negative energy” related to the children’s behavior?  A parent who hasn’t spent much time with his children may not be up to speed on developmental norms.  Also, the children may be reacting to tension in their parents who have been, until perhaps recently, undecided about being together.  Children are indeed sensitive to the stresses and uncertainties of their caregivers.  “If you guys don’t know what you’re doing, we’re all in trouble!”   Counseling and parenting classes can address understanding the nature of young children as well as agreeing on behavior standards and guidance techniques.  Parenting is a teamwork project that requires common goals and supportive roles.

As for the who-sleeps-where question, let’s not rush into big changes for the boys at the same time they are readjusting to having Dad in the house again.  They may resent his return because of what they have consequently lost.  We don’t want them to think that Dad’s homecoming means they have lost their rights to snuggling safely at night with a parent.  How does Dad feel about joining you sleeping with the children?  Assumedly your children have their own beds, and perhaps you and Dad agree that a goal in the near future is for the boys to sleep independently of parents.  Take small steps in that direction.   You might start with spending time reading books with each boy in his bed.  This can be done as part of the bedtime routine before turning in.  If Dad can participate in this, with you and he alternating between boys, his role as a story reader is an addition rather than a loss for the boys’ bedtime routine.  Then everyone meets up in the “family bed” for lullabies and backrubs.   Until they have transitioned to nodding off securely in their own beds, one parent or the other can sneak off to a couch or one of the boy’s beds for some solitary sleeping.  “Musical beds” is a common game in households with preschool-aged children.

How do you explain Dad’s re-entry into your home?  You say you believe it is the right thing to do.  If you and Dad work on making home a peaceable place, the boys only need to be told that “We’ve decided that Dad should live here with us.”   Children don’t question what adults do when the adults are confident they are doing the right thing.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! editor@chesapeakefamily.com


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