Q: I split up with my wife eight months ago and it is becoming hard to see my 12-year-old daughter. She seems to be really angry with me and blames me for the separation. The marriage did finally end because I had an affair, but this was after years of problems. To make matters worse, my ex-wife seems to be pitting my daughter against me and telling her too much about what happened between us. I don’t think it is healthy for my daughter to be so angry, and she seems to be pulling away from me and not wanting to see me much at all. Any time I talk to her it ends up in a row and makes matters worse.What can I do?
A: Children often feel very angry when their parents separate and they frequently get sucked into their parents’ conflict, taking sides and blaming one parent for what happened. This is particularly the case for young teenagers who are beginning to see the world in a more adult way and can make judgments for themselves about what they see as right or wrong.
Many of the teenagers I have worked with can be really hurt by the infidelity of one of their parents and see it as a betrayal not just of their mother, but of them and the family.
For an adolescent, who might think idealistically about relationships and who is coming into an awareness of their own sexuality, this sense of betrayal can be particularly acute.
Also, you have the added dimension of your daughter becoming a teenager and possibly entering a normal phase of teenage rebellion and being critical of her parents’ shortcomings, which might only add to her anger at you.
Listen to your daughter without being defensive
The key to helping your daughter is to listen to her without being defensive. Parents often think that they are listening to their children, but in fact use the time to defend what has happened, or to explain their point of view.
However, what children really want at this time is for their parents to appreciate their point of view and to hear how they are feeling, however upsetting it is to hear it. Once this happens, some healing can begin.
This means that if your daughter blames you for ending the marriage, rather than immediately defending yourself or blaming her mother, take time to ask her questions, such as “What makes you say that?”, and to acknowledge her feelings: “You sound really angry at me about what happened.”
Be prepared to take responsibility and apologise
Many teenagers really appreciate it when their parents take responsibility for their part in problems and offer an apology, as appropriate. For example, depending on what is bothering her most, you can acknowledge that you regret how the marriage ended and you are sorry for any hurt it caused her or her mother, if that is whom she is upset for. Or you can apologise for the loss your daughter feels personally, or if she feels you were not there for her when she needed you.
Always finish a conversation by explaining how much you love her and want to be her father, and to stay involved in her life: “Look, I’m hoping we can move on. I want to have a good relationship with you as your dad.”
Give your daughter a more balanced account of the separation
Adolescents appreciate when you treat them in a more grown-up way. Give your daughter a balanced account of the separation according to her level of understanding, in a way that does not compromise your own or your ex-wife’s privacy. In simple terms this might mean giving both sides of the account of the separation, first describing things from your own and then your ex-wife’s perspective.
It is important to appreciate your daughter’s potential divided loyalty. Help her to understand what happened without having to choose sides: “What happened was between your mum and me, and I’m sorry that has upset you.”
It is really important to be patient with your daughter, to give her plenty of time to come to terms with what has happened, and to reform her relationship with you in new circumstances.
Work constructively with your daughter’s mother
Try to talk to your ex-wife about the issues and gain her support in helping to resolve things with your daughter. Though she may still be hurt and angry about the separation, she may see the importance of her daughter continuing to have a good relationship with you as her father and be willing to support this.
Practically, this might mean she would sit down and chat with your daughter and explain that though she is upset, it is still important that she sees you. Giving your daughter “permission” in this way could be a great help in moving forward.
Ideally, it would be great if both you and your ex-wife could sit down with your daughter and discuss the separation and the contact arrangements – the specifics about when your daughter is due to see you, and so on – though you may need to meet separately with your ex-wife first to agree how to do this.
Of course, your ex-wife may not be willing to help in this way, though this could change in due course. For this reason, keep the channels of communication open between you and work hard to remain constructive. Seek the support of mediation or counselling or other services as appropriate.
Finally, be patient with your daughter. Time can be a great healer and it can take time for everyone to adjust to new circumstances. Stay involved and positive, keep listening and communicating and, over time, things should improve.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.