Tuesday 24 April 2018

Parenting Advice: My daughters have not spoken to me for four years

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers advice to your queries...

Adorable girl playing peek a boo
Adorable girl playing peek a boo
David Coleman
David Coleman

David Coleman

QUESTION: I HAVE a five-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. My son is shy in new situations. Earlier this year we started bringing him to Little Kickers soccer.

I left the family home in 2005, with the girls when they were just 11 and 12, because their father was violent. I'm on my third safety order.


The girls always had contact with their father, and spent weekends with him. I supported the girls and myself with no assistance from their dad. Despite my ex-husband's threats to "burn you down, house and all" I got legally separated in May 2010 and, for the sake of peace, I gave everything to him. He had also been having an affair when I left initially, but I never told the girls. The girls moved out a week after the court case in May 2010 and have not answered my phone calls, texts or letters since. I thought we had a good relationship. I spoilt them and was always there for them. They were my life.

Since they left I have had bad health. It's like bereavement. How can I re-establish our relationship?


Mature woman thinking at the park


David replies: In short, if they don't respond to any of your attempts to contact them, it will be very hard to re-establish any kind of relationship. It sounds like you will just have to keep trying to speak with them and to continue to let them know that you care about them and are interested in them and their lives.


But, I also think you need to do some planning about what kinds of conversations you would like to have with them if you do manage to make contact again.


It seems from what you describe that you never explained to the girls the reasons why you separated from their dad. You left him because he was unfaithful and abusive. These are very good reasons to leave a marriage.


Your ex-husband sounds like a very unpleasant and untrustworthy man, based on what you say. It is surprising that your daughters have never experienced an equivalent unpleasantness, or at least not to the extent that they were afraid to live with him fulltime.


I can only assume that they don't share your view of their dad. It is not unusual for children, in the midst of parental separation, to feel very caught in the middle, feeling loyalty to their mother and their father.


It is not that I necessarily expect them to think and feel negatively about their dad, but I would expect that, in their early twenties, they would be able to see and understand the complexity of their parents' relationship such that they could see it was "neither ... nor".


In other words, they should, at this point, be able to accept that neither you nor their dad is perfect. I'd hope that they could see that you must both take responsibility for the dissolution of your marriage.


It seems that somewhere along the line the girls have come to blame you, alone, for the break-up of the family. I wonder if they haven't forgiven you or that they have felt some other hurt in their relationship with you?


I know that you say that you have tried to contact the girls over the last four years, but there also seems to be something very passive in the manner in which you have accepted their lack of response.


That passivity is also evident in the way in which you contested nothing in the separation agreement.


I could imagine that you had enough of the fighting that occurred in your marriage and were prepared to do anything to try to be free of it.


However, this may also have led your daughters to have a naïve or incomplete picture of their dad and your relationship with him.


So, in any conversations you have with the girls at any stage in the future, I think you will need to be more honest with them about the nature of your relationship. I think you need to contextualise, for them, the decisions you made nine or 10 years ago.


They need to realise that you left, with them, because you had been abused and betrayed by their father. This isn't about bad-mouthing him. This is about explaining.


I think, when you do next try to contact them, that you fight hard for a response, because you deserve a response. Not only must you explain your decisions at the time of the separation, and subsequently, but they must also explain why they have shut you out for all these years.


I hope they will listen and let you explain. I hope that they then can explain themselves to you.


David Coleman


Question: How can we help our shy son (5) get involved in social activities?


For the first two weeks he joined in and took part in some of the activities. Then he just stopped taking part, and sat on the bench at the sidelines.


We ended up not going anymore as he just refused to take part.


Today, he started a swim club to get him interested in swimming. Each weekly session is an hour long.


My husband went with him and initially my son was interested, but very quickly into the session he didn't want to take part.


My husband ended up getting into the pool with him to help him along.


We had all talked about it in advance and he was excited, so I don't understand why he then doesn't want to do it. It's very hard not to get frustrated with him, especially when I see other boys taking part.


I would like your advice about how to help him participate in new things. Is there anything we can do that could make it easier for him?




David replies I notice the two examples of activities that you gave were both formally organised activities: a Little Kickers soccer morning (presumably organised by the local soccer club) and a swim club.


I can understand that it may be tempting to get him into clubs and mixing with lots of other children, but the social nature of these activities may be so off-putting for him that the fun of the activity itself may be lost.


So, for example, he may still really enjoy kicking a soccer ball around with you or his dad. He may, equally, still enjoy going swimming with your family, where he can just jump into and out of the water, splash about or whatever he wants to do.


So, rather than front-loading the activities with lots of social pressure (since you describe him as shy), it may be better to start with the activities and do them as part of your own family outings. So, a kick-about in the local park or a family swim may allow him to gain some confidence with the activities themselves.


Then, when he is a bit older, it may be easier for him to engage in the busier social environment of more formal training with something like soccer or swimming, confident that he enjoys the activity itself.


One of the things that, ironically, may be putting additional pressure on your son is your hope and expectation that he will get involved in different things.


He may be intensely aware that both you and his dad are very invested in him being involved in these activities.


It has become the norm for parents to try to get children involved in lots of extra-curricular activities, almost out of fear that they are missing out if they are not part of a Little Kickers club or its equivalent.


I think it is fair to challenge this assumption. There is no need for children to attend formal training, even in a fun atmosphere, when there are so many opportunities for children to have lots of informal fun just playing, with family or with some well-known friends.


Even though it may seem perfectly normal and expected, from your point of view, that he will want to be with lots of other children, playing a range of games or sports, it may just not suit him.


Of course, at age five, he probably does feel obliged to go along with what you and his dad propose. It is very hard for a five year old to argue, effectively, against his parents' desires.


So, the easier option is to allow himself to get taken along on the wave of your enthusiasm. In truth, he also probably has no real sense of what it is that you are proposing for him.


Unless he has been to a swim club, for example, he can have little idea what it entails, save from what you describe to him.


If, then, the reality doesn't match his perception, or imagined idea, from your description, he may be upset, disappointed or anxious.


Of course, the opposite is also possible, that the reality exceeds, positively, his imagination. In this case he will, naturally, be delighted to continue.


For the time being, however, I'd simply suggest to you to bring him out kicking a ball, playing tennis, swimming, hurling or any other activity you can think of that he might enjoy. Let the social aspect of it develop subsequently.


There is no need to rush him out of his "shyness". Caution and reserve are very useful human traits. Let him be himself rather than pushing him to be the kind of boy that you imagine boys "should" be.

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