Mom's unpredictability affecting daughters

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 20, 2011 06:00 AM

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A year and a half ago I became involved with a man with two young daughters. Kaya will be 3 in September and Debbie is 4. For the part year we have been sharing the girls with their mother 50%. For the past month she sees them less frequently and cancels at the last second. The girls are scared and I am very concerned about their anxiety levels which are coming out in some serious temper tantrums. Kaya becomes hysterical over the slightest things and wiil scream for hours. I understand this is a delicate situation but we need to get a handle on it before it gets worse. Their father and I reassure them multiple times a day that we love them very much but I fear it is doing no good. Please help me to understand them better so I can do what I can for them. Thank you.

From: Jennifer, Tinley Park, Illinois

Dear Jennifer,

Children this age thrive on predictability, by which I mean routine and structure -- and consistency, meaning limit-setting and consequences. All that helps them feel secure. When they are in your home, do what you can to make sure you follow routines on a daily basis (bath before story time, before prayers....etc) and to be clear in your expectations for their behaviors and how you respond to them. These are kids who sound like they've been buffeted about so I'd go out of my way with this.

Kids this age also are highly reactive to our emotions and take their cues from us. Monitor your own emotions on the days when mom is expected. Do you find yourself getting tense and anxious? Maybe a little short with them? They are likely picking up on this and it makes them act out.

Most kids this age do not know days of the week sequentially, so they don't know to anticipate that tomorrow is the day mom is supposed to come unless you tell them or talk about it to each other or on the phone. What are they over-hearing? My suggestion is that they don't need advance notice that tomorrow is mom's day; they certainly don't need to know your worry, that it's her day and will she show up? Wait until you know for sure she is coming to tell the girls, even if that makes it last minute and even though it likely puts pressure on you to have contingency plans for child care.

Whatever you do, don't badmouth mom in their earshot but also don't go to the other extreme of never talking about her.

Meanwhile, do what you can to find out what's going on with mom. If she's become so unreliable, it makes me wonder what happens when the girls are in her care. Is part of the reason the girls are scared because they don't feel safe in her care?

It sounds like there are some underlying issues here that you and the father need to examine, including, perhaps, the present custodial arrangement.

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8 comments so far...
  1. Barbara,
    Why isn't there any mention of the fact that a woman who has been "involved with" Dad for only 1.5 years now seems to be taking over the mother role? That doesn't seem very predictable or consistent. Maybe the LW should reduce her involvement to a supporting role and let Dad take the lead in handling this?

    Posted by geocool July 20, 11 09:50 AM
  1. @geocool, 1.5 years is half of the younger daughter's life. Given their young ages, it's likely neither one of them remember life before she was around. The LW is involved because she cares about these kids. Why should that be limited? What would be "long enough" to be consistent for the kids? The LW implies that she lives with the father, certainly you aren't suggesting that she just ignore these kids in her home and act like she has no impact on their lives - especially where their mother appears to be unreliable of late.

    Posted by Q July 20, 11 01:16 PM
  1. If they are not in a committed, long term relationship, then the LW is not doing the girls any favors by being so involved now. Barbara has given excellent advice in the past for step parents and blended families, and it really stood out to me that all of that was largely unmentioned this time. If Mom is starting to drop the ball and the LW is trying to step up into that role a little more, then OF COURSE this could be part of the problem!

    Posted by geocool July 20, 11 05:47 PM
  1. Geocool, I didn't get into the step-parenting piece of this for several reasons: a. I commend the LW for taking responsibility in a situation that sounds not only dyfunctional but off the bell curve: normal rules (advice) doesn't seem to apply. b. the LW was asking what she can do to understand the girls, not what she should do as a de facto step-mother. Normally, I'd agree, I advice step parents not to assume the parenting role and I wish/hope this dad will step to the plate. But that wasn't what was being asked here, these girls are very young, and the situation sounds pretty dire. Hope that answers your question.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz July 20, 11 06:28 PM
  1. You don't mention if this behavior is all the time or after visiting their mother. My son is 3 and has given up napping which means late in the day there is a lot of screaming. With kids that young, there could be many reasons for behavior. I agree with Barbara, routine is key here. Make sure they are getting whole some food, getting enough rest and an everyday routine. If they are not getting that at their mother's, then they are going to need it even more at your home.

    Posted by Happy Monkey Lou July 20, 11 07:57 PM
  1. Geocool, you're just passively criticizing the LW because she's not legally married to the father. Believe it or not, many people participate in committed, long-term relationships without being wed. And many legally wed folks are far from committed or long term!

    Posted by Q July 21, 11 03:15 PM
  1. Q: Amen. If the LW was the nth-teenth in a long line of women who were "committed" to living with Dad for a year or two that would be one thing, but in this case, it doesn't seem to be the case.

    And Geocool, my husband and I committed to one another long before we got married, even having a child out of wedlock - a child we _tried_ and wanted to have, two years before we were married. Does that somehow make either one of us less committed to one another or our child? For that matter, my brother and his partner have been together for 10 years, have two children, and aren't married, nor do they intend to be. But they're no less committed to one another or their kids.

    In the LW's case, she's not trying to be a mother but she is addressing a serious problem as a result of the biological mother's unpredictability. Where is the issue here? She's taking initiative to help these girls maintain some sense of routine and safety.

    Committment goes way, way beyond marriage - and marriage shouldn't ever be the only true measure of committment between two people or their willingness to be part of a blended family. That's just a personal bias on your end and is ultimately as helpful to the LW and others who may be in her position as spitting in the wind to put out a fire.

    Posted by Phe July 25, 11 11:44 AM
  1. I don't know why you have felt the need to jump all over me for something I didn't even say. I said "IF they are not in a committed, long term relationship...." I did not presume to know if they are or not. I stand by the statement, and I'm not sorry for trying to offer the LW another guess at what might be part of the problem here.

    Posted by geocool August 1, 11 11:10 AM
 
8 comments so far...
  1. Barbara,
    Why isn't there any mention of the fact that a woman who has been "involved with" Dad for only 1.5 years now seems to be taking over the mother role? That doesn't seem very predictable or consistent. Maybe the LW should reduce her involvement to a supporting role and let Dad take the lead in handling this?

    Posted by geocool July 20, 11 09:50 AM
  1. @geocool, 1.5 years is half of the younger daughter's life. Given their young ages, it's likely neither one of them remember life before she was around. The LW is involved because she cares about these kids. Why should that be limited? What would be "long enough" to be consistent for the kids? The LW implies that she lives with the father, certainly you aren't suggesting that she just ignore these kids in her home and act like she has no impact on their lives - especially where their mother appears to be unreliable of late.

    Posted by Q July 20, 11 01:16 PM
  1. If they are not in a committed, long term relationship, then the LW is not doing the girls any favors by being so involved now. Barbara has given excellent advice in the past for step parents and blended families, and it really stood out to me that all of that was largely unmentioned this time. If Mom is starting to drop the ball and the LW is trying to step up into that role a little more, then OF COURSE this could be part of the problem!

    Posted by geocool July 20, 11 05:47 PM
  1. Geocool, I didn't get into the step-parenting piece of this for several reasons: a. I commend the LW for taking responsibility in a situation that sounds not only dyfunctional but off the bell curve: normal rules (advice) doesn't seem to apply. b. the LW was asking what she can do to understand the girls, not what she should do as a de facto step-mother. Normally, I'd agree, I advice step parents not to assume the parenting role and I wish/hope this dad will step to the plate. But that wasn't what was being asked here, these girls are very young, and the situation sounds pretty dire. Hope that answers your question.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz July 20, 11 06:28 PM
  1. You don't mention if this behavior is all the time or after visiting their mother. My son is 3 and has given up napping which means late in the day there is a lot of screaming. With kids that young, there could be many reasons for behavior. I agree with Barbara, routine is key here. Make sure they are getting whole some food, getting enough rest and an everyday routine. If they are not getting that at their mother's, then they are going to need it even more at your home.

    Posted by Happy Monkey Lou July 20, 11 07:57 PM
  1. Geocool, you're just passively criticizing the LW because she's not legally married to the father. Believe it or not, many people participate in committed, long-term relationships without being wed. And many legally wed folks are far from committed or long term!

    Posted by Q July 21, 11 03:15 PM
  1. Q: Amen. If the LW was the nth-teenth in a long line of women who were "committed" to living with Dad for a year or two that would be one thing, but in this case, it doesn't seem to be the case.

    And Geocool, my husband and I committed to one another long before we got married, even having a child out of wedlock - a child we _tried_ and wanted to have, two years before we were married. Does that somehow make either one of us less committed to one another or our child? For that matter, my brother and his partner have been together for 10 years, have two children, and aren't married, nor do they intend to be. But they're no less committed to one another or their kids.

    In the LW's case, she's not trying to be a mother but she is addressing a serious problem as a result of the biological mother's unpredictability. Where is the issue here? She's taking initiative to help these girls maintain some sense of routine and safety.

    Committment goes way, way beyond marriage - and marriage shouldn't ever be the only true measure of committment between two people or their willingness to be part of a blended family. That's just a personal bias on your end and is ultimately as helpful to the LW and others who may be in her position as spitting in the wind to put out a fire.

    Posted by Phe July 25, 11 11:44 AM
  1. I don't know why you have felt the need to jump all over me for something I didn't even say. I said "IF they are not in a committed, long term relationship...." I did not presume to know if they are or not. I stand by the statement, and I'm not sorry for trying to offer the LW another guess at what might be part of the problem here.

    Posted by geocool August 1, 11 11:10 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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