Tuesday 23 January 2018

Dear David: My daughter won't see me since her mother and I divorced

Parental separation is difficult for everyone involved. Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Parental separation is difficult for everyone involved. Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman answers questions on how families can deal with parental separation and bullying behaviour.

Question: I am separated from my wife and two wonderful children aged three and seven. It has taken eight court appearances to secure regular access to my children. My older girl is always happy to see me. My younger daughter, however, often cries, clings to her mother and refuses to come with me. It is heartbreaking to watch, so I forgo the access allocated to me to avoid upsetting her further. My ex won't discuss this with me as the level of conflict is still high between us. How can I sensitively maintain a relationship with my two daughters?

David replies: There is no doubt that parental separation is distressing for everyone involved. I am sure your children are really struggling with the situation; as, it seems, are you and your ex-wife. It sounds like it is an arduous challenge to reach agreement on things since the separation.

It is good to hear that you are sensitive to your younger daughter's needs. At her age, she probably still has her primary attachment with her mother, especially if she is still living with her.

That means that whenever she is stressed, upset or tense she will rely upon her mother to provide her with her safety, security and comfort. That is not to suggest, for one moment, that she is unsafe with you, or cannot be comforted by you. It just means that her mum is probably her preferred point of comfort, at this stage of her development.

Children are often very attuned to the emotional state of their parents. It may be very obvious to both your daughters that there is still a lot of acrimony between you and their mum. Tension and conflict might be omnipresent whenever you meet for an access handover.

Both of your daughters may pick up on this. Your older daughter seems able to see that this is something between the adults and that she can have a separate relationship with each of you.

Your younger daughter, however, may perceive that if her mum is tense, that this means there is something to be wary or frightened of. Consequently she turns more to her mum for comfort and security.

I think you are right not to push too hard for her to come with you, and to leave her with her mum if she is too distressed by the notion of being separated from her.

It is fine to be warm and encouraging, but recognising that there is a point at which she is clear about her choice to stay with her mum.

Having to have the handover at their home, from their mum to you, does seem to be making it harder for your younger daughter to choose to come with you.

Having a neutral venue, and, indeed, a neutral person present for the access handover might really ease the situation and reduce her distress, such that she might be more likely to come with you and discover that she enjoys her time with you.

So, for example, your ex-wife might leave the girls at a childminder and then you can pick them up from there. If your daughters are in school and pre-school then collecting them straight from those venues for an afternoon or evening might work better than collecting them from home on a weekend day.

Even though things are difficult, right now, you have to remember that you are trying to establish a long-term relationship with your daughters. You want it to sustain for all of their lives, and yours.

So, going slowly and empathetically now, as you are, seems to me to offer the best long-term outcome, where your daughter can come to know you and to trust you as she grows older.

You will help this if she doesn't feel you ever forced her to do something "unpleasant" or "scary" (as she might perceive it) against her will. She is young to set up any kind of alternative connection (like letters, texts, even phone calls) without her mum's support (which doesn't sound like it will be offered). If you could persuade her mum to help with other forms of contact it might ease the distress at access.

Alternatively, you must just be patient and sensitive and wait for her to become more settled and secure such that she can trust she will enjoy her time with you.

Our neighbour is a bully and has encouraged other kids on the road to taunt our children

Question: Our family is being terrorised by our neighbour. This man threatens us not to come near his children, even though we never do. A couple of years ago his son and my son, who are the same age, had a tussle on the green during a game of chasing; normal kid stuff. Since then his dad has had it in for us. He gets his children to mock us on the road with rude language and gestures. He gets the other children on the road to exclude my two kids (aged five and eight now). It is so stressful living here. Is there anything we can do?

David replies: It always amazes me that a relatively small incident, like a scuffle between children, can blow up to such a negative relationship between whole families.

It does sound to me like your neighbour is a difficult individual. The unfortunate "tussle" between your son and his has provided him with a platform to act out his anger. However, that anger seems to have sustained long beyond what the incident warranted.

I can see how, even an innocent altercation, between two children, could lead a parent of one of them to feel upset that their child was hurt or treated unfairly. The way to deal with it, however, is to come and talk with the other parent to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

It appears that this man has never addressed the incident directly, but has, instead, subjected you to a sustained level of threat and discomfort. His actions seem to me to be bullying in nature.

As such, you need to try to deal with them as you would have dealt with a playground bully back when you were a child.

On a practical, daily level, you and your children need to walk through your estate with your heads held high. Rather than ignoring the taunting or the gesturing, you need to acknowledge that you have heard or seen it, but that you are not bothered by it.

To do this, you say something neutral that is assertive, without being aggressive. So, if the children are in the 8-12 age category, you might say. "You can call me any name you like, it doesn't make me feel bad".

Say this, even if it does make you feel bad. Say it even if you don't feel assertive. The more you practice acting in an assertive way, the more it becomes a habit and part of how you actually feel.

When we totally ignore taunts or jibes, they tend to be repeated and exaggerated in order to get a response from us. So that is why giving a response, that isn't provocative, or aggressive, is more likely to reduce the likelihood of the taunts being repeated, since they realise that they aren't having the effect of winding you up.

To resolve the problem in the longer term, however, you need to speak with your neighbour directly. Do you feel strong enough, and confident enough, to talk about the original scuffle between your children? Can you then move that conversation to his current mistreatment of you and your family?

It may be that he won't entertain it and will refuse to engage. It may be that you feel too anxious to even try. It may be that you have already tried with no success. In this case, you may have to reach outside your own resources to get help from others.

Have you other neighbours who support your view and are willing to help you? If so, do they have a good enough relationship with this man to intercede and try to resolve the bitterness that he has created and clung to?

It may be, though, that he will not listen to reason and rationality, or has no desire to sort things out. If that is the case, then he needs some kind of external pressure, or a force greater than himself, to tell him to stop.

That might come from a residents' association, if there is one. It might come from the council if you or he are council tenants, or if the level of bullying escalates, it might come from the Gardai.

Bullying behaviour rarely just stops. It often needs external pressure to make it stop. He may need someone, with some authority, to point out to him what he is doing and firstly ask, then force, him to stop.

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