Dear Dr. Jann: I’m having problems with my daughter. When she visits my house where I live with my girlfriend and her two children, she bullies the other kids. She’s respectful in my presence, but it is embarrassing to hear about her behavior when I’m gone. What can I do ? What’s good ex-etiquette?
Dr. Jann: You can take her to counseling, but an educated guess is she’s jealous—and pretty angry at her life situation. Let’s look at life from her perspective, shall we? You are her daddy. You no longer live with her, she visits. Two other kids get to have you all the time and you aren’t even their father. She’s hurt, so she lashes out at what she perceives is the problem—those two other kids. She respects adults, especially you, enough to not do it in front of you, but when the cat’s away…and with no one to help her curb or redirect her anger, she gets mean and disrespectful. Understand, she sees that you have moved on with another partner. She may be afraid that you will move on to other children, as well.
So now that you have an idea about her motivation, what can you do about it? The standard suggestion is more one-on-one time with Dad, but if you don’t approach it carefully, it won’t make her feel any better, plus it might alienate the other kids, whom you now live with and like it or not, impact their lives.
The best one-on-one time is listening. Stop what you are doing and look straight at her when she tells you a story. Get out of the house where you can give her your undivided attention and not be distracted by kids, dogs, chores, a new partner—or your computer. Do simple things if you don’t have the time between work and daily life. Ask her to join you when you walk the dog. And, an important component to successfully combine families is to enlist your partner to help you present one-on-one time with your child as standard procedure—not call attention to this big event whenever she is around. That will alienate the other children.
Finally, make sure that you have talked to your daughter in age appropriate ways about why you and her mommy are no longer together. This does not mean give her the nitty- gritty about the break-up. It means make sure she knows that even though you and her mother are no longer together, both of you will continue to love and support her forever. And, I must emphasize “both.” Acknowledging that you will continue to be united with her mother in your love for her (your daughter) will help her learn to trust again—and don’t be surprised if once she gets that, the bullying will lessen, if not disappear.