Dear Dr. Jann: We are having New Year’s Eve at our house this year. We get my fiancé’s eight-year-old daughter every weekend and have a really good bond with her. Last night, my fiance got a call from his ex saying that she didn’t think their daughter wanted to be at our house for the celebration. We were under the assumption she did. She’s been talking about it since Halloween. What’s good ex-etiquette?
Dr. Jann: Whenever I hear one parent tell me that a child has told them something completely different than they have told the other parent, that’s a red flag that the parents are not talking. The child is either using that fact either to manipulate the situation or he or she is running defense for the parent he or she feels is the underdog.
If mom is going to be alone this New Year’s Eve, she may have said something like, “Oh honey, this year you’re going to be spending New Year’s Eve with your dad. It just won’t be the same.” The response from the child might be, “Will you be lonely, Mommy?” And Mom’s response could easily be, “I’m always lonely when you aren’t around, sweetie.” Now you have an eight-year-old feeling bad that she’s looking forward to spending time away and leaving Mommy alone. Did Mom mean to put all this on her child? Probably not. The responses given might have been to reinforce the mother’s love for the child, but you can see how this kind of response could unintentionally put the child right in the middle. Eight-year-olds don’t have the emotional make-up to rationalize that the agreed upon parenting plan splits the holidays equally and next year she’ll be spending NYE with Mommy.
So, what’s a better response? Not, “I know you don’t want to go, but you’ll be home soon,” but by saying something like, “It’s your time with your Dad (or Mom) and he (she) really looks forward to spending time with you.” Plus making sure the child understands that you will be fine — and next year you can spend the holiday together.
At some point most children say they don’t want to go to the other parent’s home for their scheduled time. And, it’s not uncommon for parents who want to be “cool” and understanding to say that it’s okay. But, the “I understand,” comments are often misunderstood by the kids. To an adolescent or teen, particularly, the “I understand” attitude translates to “I don’t care if you come or not.” So, I always tell parents to be understanding to a point — the kids may have an important function to attend — but give them permission to love being with their other parent. It’s not about you, it’s about your child. (Ex-etiquette for parents, rule #1, “put the children first.” That’s good ex-etiquette. Happy Holidays to all!