Reader Sad Co-Parent writes:
I have been separated for months and now am getting divorced, we have a 4-year-old daughter. The problem is that now I have a new boyfriend. Because my ex-husband doesn't like him, he refuses to see our daughter. I have tried to explain to him that my new relationship has nothing to do with him and he can't use our daughter like this, but he refuses to listen.
What should I tell my princess when she asks for her Daddy and asks when she is going to see him? It breaks my heart because she misses him, but there's nothing I can do. I just feel sorry for her. What should I tell her?
This is a tough situation, and my heart aches for your child. I am assuming that your husband has some sort of emotional issue that is predisposing him to act selfishly toward your child. It is probable that his own childhood was not the best. He is unable to see that he is hurting your child in his attempts to control the behavior of his ex-spouse. He probably tends toward narcissism, which you can read about here. If you want to read books about how to deal with him in the future, once he has rejoined your life (and I predict that he will), I have compiled a list of books that discuss narcissists here.
Now let's turn to how you can best ameliorate the impact of your ex's behavior on your daughter. It is important to ensure that your child does not in any way feel as though it is his or her fault that Daddy is not around. Tailor your explanation of why he can't see her to your daughter's developmental level. For example, you can say something like, "I know that Daddy loves you very much, but he is not able to see you right now. He is not feeling well and it is best for him not to be around kids right now. Maybe you can draw pictures or write letters to Daddy whenever you miss him and keep them in a special book. Then maybe one day you will be able to show them to him." You can also make a little photo book of the child with your co-parent that your child can look at when ever he or she wants.
You may think that this is not truthful, but I disagree. There is no emotionally healthy parent or even grandparent who refuses to see a child for any reason. If a parent loses the capacity to empathize with his or her child, and conceives of the child as a pawn in a larger manipulation of an ex-spouse (or, in some cases, a narcissistic grandparent who won't engage with a grandchild out of anger at an adult child), this speaks to a lack of psychological health, and an impaired capacity to self-regulate when faced with anger and frustration. As your child is not old enough to understand this, saying Daddy doesn't feel well is a good translation.
Do not tell her that her father won't see her. This is hurtful and does no good at all. You need to honor your child's love of an absent co-parent, even if he is choosing to be absent. In fact, it is likely that your daughter will begin to idealize Daddy more in his absence, and this is okay and normal. Do not try to disabuse her of the notion that Daddy is perfect. This is a healthy coping mechanism that allows her to more effectively deal with the hole that his absence leaves in her life.
Children of any age may be very angry at a parent that they can't see, even if it is because the parent is sick or imprisoned. Make sure to use your empathy skills to tell your child that these feelings are completely normal and okay. Reaffirm that Daddy loves her very much and would be with her if he or she could. (Here, if he had the emotional capacity to parent your child, he would be doing so.)
Focus on keeping your daughter's impression of your ex as positive and loving, if there is any history at all of him acting this way. I would imagine there is, since she misses him. Also, narcissists can be very charming when they want to be. Mention positive traits of your ex and positive memories that your daughter shared with her father, even if it annoys or nearabout kills you to do this. Remember, if your child thinks poorly of a parent, she is thinking poorly of half of herself. You can read here about how bad it is when parents undermine one another, and here is a guest post on how toxic it can be for kids when parents badmouth one another after divorce.
Good luck and I hope that your situation changes for the better soon. Thanks for writing in. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says If Your Child Hates One Parent He Hates 50% Of Himself.