Q: My daughter comes home upset about lots of things that happen at her dad's. Lately, the biggest problem is that she does not like his new girlfriend. How do I handle this? Should I tell her to talk to him about her feelings? It's complicated, because sometimes I've seen my daughter be nice to her, so I don't even know what is real here. Should I tell my daughter that she's sending mixed messages?
A: This is a great opportunity to practice your empathy skills, because you have absolutely no control over this situation. Sometimes we are tempted to try to get our children to talk to their other parent about their feelings, but I think it is far more helpful to stay with your child's feelings in the moment than to try to help her solve anything.
Let's listen in on how it sounds to give empathy:
daughter: I don't like Dad's new girlfriend. She's mean.
mother: You don't like her, huh.
daughter: No. She tells me to be quiet all the time.
mother: (resisting the temptation to ask for more details) So it's not much fun when she's there.
daughter: Yeah (and she goes on to say more)
Mom just continues acknowledging what she hears without suggesting solutions. She stays with the flow of feelings rather than directing the conversation toward strategies that seem 'productive' or 'empowering.'
Encouraging her to talk to him about the situation rather than talk to you about her feelings would derail an opportunity to connect emotionally with your daughter. Let him manage his own communication with her. She's telling YOU, so stay with her feelings, right here, right now, and help her work through them by being an empathetic listener.
Along those same lines, mentioning that she seems to like her dad's girlfriend when you see them together is very likely to trigger defensiveness and shut down the flow of communication. She's not in the adult position of being able to speak her truth in relationship. She may be making a relatively wise choice to 'fake' being nice. At her age, it may seem like the only choice she CAN make to avoid getting in trouble.
So go ahead and empathize with that: "You have decided to be polite because it would cause more problems for you if you weren't. That makes sense, honey." This is not the time or place or age to be trying to teach congruence. And I would not worry about teaching her that she is sending mixed messages by being inconsistent. Instead, I'd want to help her tap into her own power to feel her emotions and then deliberately choose her actions.
Kids in joint custody situations have a LOT of ambivalent feelings, and when you can accept them all, it's a very powerful touchstone for them. They need to know that it's okay for them to HAVE all of those feelings without BEING IDENTIFIED with them, or needing to DO anything to change them. Listening is a far more powerful intervention than providing a solution.
(and the same is true for us as parents - we need to be listened to as well, so make sure to have an adult support team available who can do the same thing for you.)
I hope this helps.
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