I have one little girl who is seven years old. I separated from her father three years ago. It was acrimonious at the time but we are now getting on and he sees her twice a week with at least one overnight. He recently announced that he is getting married and my little girl is very upset about this. She asks me why can’t her daddy and I get married; we were never married.
She has lots of worries about how things might change and is nervous about going to the wedding. I try to reassure her the best I can and say that she should chat to her father about it. As far as I can see, her father’s new partner seems nice and is trying her best when she sees my daughter.
I tried to say something to her father about it when he was collecting our daughter the other day, but he seemed to take it the wrong way, implying that I was making trouble or something. I’m not sure what more I can do. Do you have any suggestions?
When parents separate, some of the original upset and feelings can be brought up for children at various milestones in the future. Introducing a new partner or one of the parents getting married is one such milestone.
Children your daughter’s age often retain a fantasy that their parents will remarry or get back together again and the prospect of marriage to someone else puts an end to this fantasy. This can bring up feelings of loss and grief, and all this is normal.
In addition, your daughter might worry that if she accepts her father getting married, she is being somehow disloyal to you. Or she might worry if her father gets married, he might not have as much time for her in the future and she might lose contact with him.
It is good that your daughter is talking to you about her worries rather than bottling things up – this is the most important thing in helping her cope and it gives you an opportunity to support her and help her think things through.
It is also normal that your daughter would find it hard to talk to her father about her feelings. She might worry her feelings would upset him and may find it easier to talk to you as she lives mainly with you.
Communicating with her father
The ideal would be for you to communicate to her father about how your daughter is feeling, and for both of you to respond to her in a positive reassuring manner. Of course, I appreciate how challenging it might be to talk to an ex-partner about something of such a sensitive nature, so it is worth taking time to think how best to do this.
Perhaps it might be best not to raise the subject during handover when you are under time pressure. Instead, text him that you need to talk about your daughter at a later time, either face to face or on the phone. Alternatively, send him an email saying how your daughter is feeling.
When you do communicate with him, try to avoid criticism and to start positive, perhaps focusing on something going well (even congratulating him on his wedding). Then say how your daughter is feeling and what she might need to help to manage. If it helps, you could show her father this article as a means of assisting this conversation.
Talking with your daughter
In talking with your daughter, the ideal would be for you and her father to briefly explain about the wedding to her together. This gives her the message that you are working together and permission that she can talk to either of you about how she is feeling.
It is also important that both you and her father give her time to talk to you one to one so she can express to you individually how she might be feeling.
Listen to her feelings
It would be helpful if you and her father could encourage her to share her worries and fears, and to give her the message that she can talk to you about anything.
Take time to listen to her feelings without dismissing them. Recognise that the wedding is likely to bring up some of her original feelings about the separation and use this as an opportunity to talk this through with her (for example, how you both love her, though you are living apart, and so on).
Reassure her about future changes
It would be great if her father could reassure her explicitly about the future. For example, he could say that though he is getting married, this does not change in any way how much he will see her and that she will always be his special girl, and so on. In practical terms, making sure to continue to commit to regular one-to-one time with her over the coming months will help to make this reassurance real.
It is also important that as her mother, you continue to reassure her that you are okay with her father getting married. You want to remove her potential need to be “loyal” to you and give her permission to accept the changes.
It is great that you recognise that her father’s new partner is “trying her best” to help your daughter navigate this new relationship in a positive way and that will be very helpful to her.
Focus on the positives
It might help to focus on some of the potential positives for your daughter. You could say that the wedding will be a fun family event for her that she can enjoy.It is very important that her father takes time to explain the practical arrangements for the day – how she will be involved, who will be there to mind her when he is
It is very important that her father takes time to explain the practical arrangements for the day – how she will be involved, who will be there to mind her when he is busy, when he will see her next after the wedding, and so on. Being clear about this might help her be less worried.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
For information on John’s courses for parents see www.solutiontalk.ie