From “Disneyland Dad” to “Authentic Self” Dad

Connecting with our children authentically is often the way we begin to fully meet their developmental needs, as Coach Connie’s story beautifully demonstrates.

Jeff contacted me about parent coaching after the Guardian ad Litem assigned to his divorce case had suggested a parent coach might be helpful. When we began our coaching relationship, he was very stressed about his situation. As a father of three children, a nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old boy/girl twins, his main goal was to build a strong relationship with his children regardless of where they physically lived. He was hopefully approaching the end of a long and contentious divorce and expressed deep concern about how this was affecting his children emotionally.

The vision he held for his family was one where communication is functioning at its highest level in an atmosphere that invites true freedom of expression, effective listening, clear understanding and appropriate follow through. He wanted to learn “how to parent correctly.” I was impressed by his earnest desire to offer the best of himself in order to create a solid family structure in the midst of chaos.

The current visitation schedule gave Jeff the ability to be with his children every Wednesday afternoon until 7:30PM as well as every other weekend. Our weekly coaching sessions were scheduled for Monday evenings. I soon began to detect a pattern of high energy and excitement during the sessions that took place immediately after a weekend with his children. The alternate sessions seemed to be occupied with complaints and anxiety-ridden tales about his wife and the latest accusations she was presenting. Making him aware of this obvious shift in energy on our weekly calls caused him to become more mindful about his expenditure of energy so to be able to focus more on his relationship with his children.

Jeff described his oldest daughter, Lilly, as sweet, smart and caring. She was uneasy with conflict and did her best to avoid it. She always seemed to need reassurance of some kind, and cuddling was one of her favorite activities. Cognitively she always strived to be politically correct and get everything right the first time. This caused Jeff to be ever vigilant for a tendency towards perfectionism and the negatives that could ensue should it get out of hand.

His younger daughter, Myra, had always been independent and perceptive with a compassionate nature. She had a very serious and logical way of approaching life. Jeff’s trepidation where Myra was concerned was that she did not verbalize her feelings enough, and he wondered what the long-term consequences would be of always stuffing her thoughts and desires.

Her twin brother, Reece, challenged the family with his strong will, cleverness and intuitive mind. In the last three years, Reece’s behavior had become somewhat difficult and was often referred to by others as “bad,” and Jeff worried that Reece would come to see himself as such. Jeff wanted Reece to identify with a different role and was all in favor of learning how to reframe his behavior in a more positive light.

Guiding Jeff to focus on the things that were working in his life with the children was difficult to maintain at first; yet, in doing so, he began to visualize a new possibility and was able to start painting a portrait of his ultimate family vision. His perception of himself as a capable and effective parent began to grow as we identified his predominant parenting style and explored his obvious strengths.

Jeff’s heart-centered approach to his parenting was very apparent to me from the beginning. Sensitivity to his children’s feelings was one of Jeff’s greatest strengths that he was not yet fully aware of. He constantly made statements about his desire to “be in tune with my kids’ feelings” and his nurturing style made him very perceptive to and concerned about the children’s moods and emotions. In addition, his intuitive and practical side was always very alert to the significance the environment played in their well-being. When encouraged to pay more attention to his empathic side and listen to what it was telling him, he was able to readily identify his children’s emotions, then validate and address them in an optimal fashion, all the while honoring their unique personalities and developmental stages in the process.

By guiding Jeff to analyze what really worked to make the children happy, he was able to put aside his self-imposed pressure to be a “Disneyland Dad”: always having to do something or spend money to have fun with his children. He gradually began to trust his authentic self more rather than doing things he thought his children wanted him to do. His heightened awareness and attentive observation skills led him to discover that just being together or taking a walk was often enough for them.

The tense and frazzled parent that he presented to me when we first started working together gradually began to melt away once he closed his ears to the old voice of doubt. Jeff gradually became reacquainted with the wonderful parenting skills that had always existed within him. Coaching guided him to alter his perspective and acquire a new consciousness about expending his energies where they mattered most—to connect with his children to be better able to address their developmental needs.

In working to help Jeff experience his strong suits of empathy and intuition, he soon began to see evidence of these qualities in himself. He shared a story of a time when his son was embarrassed by a conversation they were having as a family. As a result, his self-conscious attitude was preventing him from speaking and entering into the conversation. Jeff responded intuitively by suggesting his son squeeze his finger once for ‘no’ and twice for ‘yes’ as an alternative means of communication. I immediately pointed out to him that his intuitive side brought out a discerning flexibility in approaching challenges, and his empathic side portrayed genuine respect for his son’s feeling of embarrassment. In addition, I affirmed what a wonderful aptitude he had for making meaningful connections with his children—a truly valuable gift. The term “making a connection” resonated with him from that point on, and he saw every interaction with his children as an opportunity to either connect or disconnect with them.

Our primary work as parents is to secure and maintain a healthy parent-child bond, which is key to our children's optimal development. Human bonding is a process of connecting to others through interactions that lead to unique attachments and establishes emotional trust, mutual respect, security and love. Jeff knew this on an intuitive level and his actions clearly exemplified his desire to make vital connections with his children. As I was able to reinforce such actions by pointing out the benefits to his children’s emotional development, Jeff was better able to recognize the enormous gains that come from bonding with one’s children.

During our seventh session Jeff excitedly informed me that he had recently taken a walk with Myra and intentionally left room in their conversation for her to speak. Things were quiet at first but soon she started asking him questions and then began to talk about her feelings regarding the divorce—something she had never done before. Just before they arrived back at home she turned to him and said, “Thanks for listening dad” and gave him a big hug. The joy in his voice was evident when he told me, “I not only knew I had made a deep connection this time, I could feel it.”

The icing on the cake came for Jeff when he attended parent-teacher conferences for his twins. The teacher provided Jeff with some of the twins’ work samples and writing folder. As Jeff perused the stories he discovered they wrote about family life with him at his house, tears of joy welled up inside him. Reading their accounts of the fun they had being at dads because they did fun things like go to the park, look at family picture albums and snuggle on the couch, he received powerful affirmation for his parenting. He realized in this seminal moment that he knows his children well and that he is giving them what they need to develop optimally. The excitement, joy and pride in his voice resounded so clearly as he described this experience, confirming my sense that the children—indeed the entire family—was definitely going to thrive.

Connie Hammer, MSW
Saco, ME

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