Mom's relationship is causing a breach with preteen

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 9, 2012 06:00 AM

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[This letter has been condensed and edited.]

Hi Barbara.

I am going through something that does not make sense. I am a single mother. I have three children, Jonathan is 14 1/2 and has Asperger's syndrome, Amanda is 12 and Beverly is 7. The background is that my daugther, Amanda, was not yet born when her father and I separated. He is not involved in her life due to his mental illness. Minor attempts on our part at involving him have failed. She always wanted a dad and when she was 5 years old, I got involved with a man who cunningly pushed his way into our lives. I had a daughter with him. She is 7 years now. He was in our lives for 2 years, however, because he is a drug addict, he disappeared five years ago, and we have not seen or heard from him since.

Amanda loved him very much and missed him badly, as did his 2-year-old daughter. In the last five years, I have only focused on being mom and dad to my children, working, going to college, PTA president, church, etc. We are a low-income family, getting by....I bought this old broken down house when I was 21, 9 years before I married Amanda and Jonathan's dad.

A man came into our lives, as a friend, and has been a friend for a year and a half. My children have known him for the entire time and have seen him every week and sometimes three or four times a week for all this time. They have grown to trust him, love him and enjoy countless hours of his company. This man and I were only friends and were never interested in becoming a couple. We are Christians and neither one of us date or become sexually involved outside of marriage. We discovered about one month ago our feelings [of] deep love for each other. It grew over time.

We thought all the children would be overjoyed, as all of them often said they wished we would marry....Jonathan and Beverly are happy about it. Amanda is not. She is angry. she threatens to kill herself if I marry him. She is telling me that other men I know are better choices. Jeff works. He supports himself. He helps support his mother, but he is not wealthy. She went from loving Jeff and having fun with him often to being downright cruel and mean to both of us, almost all of the time. I do not understand. I am worried. I am searching for answers. I want to know what to do.

Amanda has a counselor she sees for some anxiety issues. The counselor explained that I cannot turn off my love for Jeff. That it is my choice who I want to be with. Barbara, I am not, we are not, imposing him as a father figure to any of the children.... I am still in the role of mom and dad until that were to happen, if it can.... We do not flaunt our relationship in front of her, but we are seeing each other almost daily and we are kind to each other. It is hard to hide the joy of caring for each other in this new way and we sometimes using words like "dear" and hugging more often, although we always hugged before. I tell her I care how she feels, but she needs to uphold a standard of treating others with respect, and I know that she loves Jeff, because a person does not "pretend to love someone" for a year and a half, and then suddenly not care about them anymore and hate them. She says that she liked Jeff until he liked her mom, and now she hates him. She makes threats to kill herself or others if we ever marry. I just do not understand any of this.

From: Mary, Margate, NJ

Dear Mary,

It sounds like you're handling this appropriately: You're not foisting this man on your children as their dad, and he's not living with you. You're accepting of her feelings, within appropriate limits: she can't be disrespectful to him any more than she can be of anyone else. I also hope that you are making a point to have alone time/activities with her (and each child) so that she doesn't feel as if she's lost you to him.

My best guess about what's going on? She's 12 and she had/has a fantasy life all this time with him. It's all in her head, and it's probably pretty complicated, given that she's never known her dad. Perhaps she imagined Jeff as Prince Charming who would be both father and romantic figure.

In other words, she's likely had a crush on him. Now she feels betrayed, certainly by him, maybe even by you. I'm not suggesting she (or he) ever acted on this. In fact, he's probably not even aware, and she may not be in a fully-conscious way, either.
I'm also not suggesting this is something you talk to her about because that will likely make her even more resentful. Leave that for the therapist.

My advice for you is to go slowly with Amanda. Don't expect her to engage with him; in fact, his best move right now is to be a background figure as far as she's concerned.
This is perhaps the toughest age for a child to have a step-parent appear on the scene because of the swirl of developmental and hormonal changes going on, especially for a girl. Don't hold this against her, don't try to reason with her about it. This isn't something that's logical. She leaves the room when he enters? Ignore it. She won't speak at the dinner table if he's there. That's her choice. Only react when she's rude, and then keep it simple.

During some quiet time together, let her know how much you love her, and that, yes, you also love Jeff. You hope someday they will be friends again. In the meantime, you will respect her feelings and you hope she will respect yours.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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6 comments so far...
  1. I see this a little differently. What I see as an adult that has come from a divorced family whose Mother chose to date after the divorce is this. You as her mother have allowed 2 men into her life her father and her siblings father. You chose them and she chose to follow her mother's lead and allow them into her life. They then both up and left with most likely little to no explanation. What I feel here is she no longer is just willing to accept your judgement of these men as she lived through the history. I can't blame her for that. Now she's doing what she knows how to do as a pre teen child.. I don't say any of this to be mean but after reading your letter what I found to be bothersome is the fact that this child has no say about what you do but is expected to like man whose relationship with you has changed. She trusted him before, now that you too are together she feels the need to be defensive.


    Posted by laura May 9, 12 09:20 AM
  1. I'd have to agree more with Laura than Barbara in that I don't think it's a crush. Perhaps she's afraid that once you two do become an item, he's going to leave like her step dad (and presumably other men that may have briefly been in your and her life). Maybe she loves him so much she's actually pushing him away to test him - that's also another thing that children do, especially at this age, especially when they've been hurt in the past. She wants to see if he's legit or if he's going to leave too. Maybe she has been living a fantasy life that's based on reality where he's the perfect father figure - from afar - and she's afraid of the change that will certainly come (maybe for the worse - at least from her perspective) once he moves in and truly acts as dad.

    I'm sure there are a number of things going on here, and I do think that Barbara is correct in that you can't push it, and you have to reassure her of her fears. She probably needs some form of consistency right now more than ever. Perhaps you and she can join a class together, maybe sewing or painting or anything that just you and she do together every week. Time together, building a bond etc. Also, you can let her know that you will always be there for her, no matter what happens to other people in your life.

    And lastly, make sure to just slow down with this man. There is no need, what-so-ever, to rush anything. Just think of the chaos this is causing now, and if heaven forbid it weren't to eventually work out between you and he, how bad it may become going through something like that again especially given the fear your daughter is now showing. So keep it slow, keep it simple, and I'm sure everything will turn out okay in the end.

    Posted by K May 9, 12 12:08 PM
  1. Do you suppose Amanda knows something about Jeff that Mary doesn't? I'm the grown daughter of an abusive father and stepfather and a twice-divorced mother who enabled and defended the inappropriate behavior of both of these men.
    As a child in a compromising situation, I was defenseless at home -- and my father and stepfather knew it.
    During their respective relationships with my mother, these men initially had their best behavior on display... until my mother got comfortable and grew enamored with them. Then, my father and stepfather both followed the same pattern: first inappropriate actions toward me and my siblings when mom wasn't looking, then gradually, inexcusable actions in plain view. The onset of abuse was so gradual that there were times when only 1 or 2 of us kids would be on the receiving end (I was 1 of 7), and since the rest of the kids were being treated well enough, my father and stepfather were in a position to insist that they were doing nothing wrong. Since they both worked at having decent reputations initially, the blame for what not seemed like "out of character" behavior for these men was shifted to us kids, and their pretend acceptance of us vanished as we were disparaged as "inconvenient", "antagonistic", and "unstable and overly sensitive".
    Mom, who had filled both the mother and father role for the majority of her parenting years, was motivated by desperation to make these relationships "work" because she was tired and lonely; no one who knows what it's like to be a single parent would fault her for these feelings. Unfortunately, her feelings compelled her to blind herself to the abuse of her children as she defended these men, making them out to be wonderful people -- literally, she nicknamed my stepfather "Mr. Wonderful"! She lashed out at, fought bitterly with, and destroyed the reputations of anyone who took notice and said otherwise about them -- babysitters, extended family, and us kids especially. My most honest and rational protests against being abused (physically, verbally, even sexually) were met with dismissive claims that I was childish, or a brat, and then further demoralization followed through punishment, isolation, and the withholding of love and care.
    Mary's description of Jeff ("he's a Christian who displays the utmost respect and my other kids adore him!") and Amanda's sudden 180 behaviorally smack all too familiar.
    If Amanda was not accepting of Jeff's involvement in your lives from the beginning, the warning bells wouldn't be ringing so loudly. But with the situation as it is, I hope you, Barbara, will join men in urging a thorough vetting for this Jeff guy! Consider the possibility that Jeff has now gotten close enough to have the kind of access that allows him to show his true colors, and has begun targeting Amanda because she's the youngest. If this is what's going on, he'll be able to perpetuate his sick behavior by making Mary and the other 2 kids, and anyone else he and Mary can convince, think he's a great guy. It's called hiding in plain sight, and sadly it's all too common.
    I know I sound alarmist for pointing all of this out, and that we all want to be able to give one another the benefit of a doubt -- especially when we're longing for romance. But when you're a parent, erring on the side of caution is entirely necessary for the sake of protecting your children! It's tough work, and getting "the scoop" on someone who has you by the heartstrings is probably the last thing you feel like doing, but it's what's best for your kids and for YOU!
    After all, once the seed of abuse is quietly planted, it grows like a weed. I can guarantee you it won't stop with your kids, and you'll be emotionally stuck defending him even after he finally turns on you.
    Please learn everything you can about Jeff. Please observe his behavior carefully and objectively, and don't gloss over a thing. Please establish an open and confidential rapport with Amanda, and allow her to be comfortable with saying whatever she needs to say about this situation without the threat of punishment or other fallout hanging over her head. If she trusts you enough to communicate the root of her concerns with you, don't be dismissive or punitive. My gut says she's threatening to kill herself AND suggesting other men for you (anyone but Jeff!!) for a reason -- that's it's not just preteen melodramatics. Suggesting other men for you is her way of saying "I want you to be happy, and accept that the addition of a partner to your life will bring you happiness." It's probably the best way she can think of to convey that she's not uncooperative due to jealousy. As for her threat to kill herself -- I don't think she's trying to control your feelings, I think she's trying to let you know that she wants your happiness enough to take herself out of the picture because she can't go on being abused, but acknowledges that Jeff isn't going anywhere. Please please please don't ignore what she's trying to communicate to you, even when you feel like you'd prefer not to hear or believe it. Accept that if she's got something disturbing to share, you'll probably have the urge to diminish or disprove it -- and that this doesn't make you a bad person, it's natural to feel that way. But please realize that it's not in your best interest to be anything but receptive and protective.
    Do your homework, don't leave anything to chance, make an honest assessment of Jeff, and respond accordingly. If ultimately you discover that you're just dealing with an angsty daughter who doesn't know how to handle her feelings about this man's place in your family's life, at least you won't be left to question your judgement. And if there isn't in fact any covert abuse going on, then chances are good that the counselor you've hired will be able to help her through this. (On the other hand, if the counselor is just trying to find a gentle but firm way to tell your daughter "This is how it is going to be regardless of your circumstances" and is not willing to listen to Amanda's story or to address her personal concerns, she's not doing her job, and is just one more dismissive adult your daughter needs to be wary of.)
    Investigating Jeff will give you the confidence of knowing that he is the man that you think he is, not just the man you're hoping that he is!!! Please proceed with caution and consideration, especially with respect for your dear children.

    Posted by Kristen May 9, 12 01:57 PM
  1. I second making sure there isn't abuse or potential abuse involved. Most men aren't interested in spending "countless" hours with unrelated children. Hopefully it is nothing, but given the extreme reaction by your daughter, it is worth and second and third look.

    Posted by PatD May 9, 12 08:21 PM
  1. I really can't believe you intimated Amanda has a crush on this man. Awful, just awful.

    I used to be Amanda; I watched my mother go from relationship to relationship. She brought a man into our lives who gave me the creeps. I couldn't articulate why but I just didn't like the way he looked at me. He once told me (I was Amanda's age) to "go out and get myself laid". I told my mother. Her response - "you're just jealous I have a boyfriend and you don't". When they finally broke up - he threatened to blow up our house with us in it. Aside from this man, there were multiple men (four husbands including my dad - who she had pushed out of our lives). It got to the point where I stopped trying to get to know them.

    You need to talk to your daughter and figure out why she had a change of heart. Don't suggest anything - JUST LISTEN. You may think you're not imposing him as a father figure - but she not only never knew her real father but the other father figure in her life left. So why in the world would she trust that this guy won't too? Also, she has "anxiety issues" and needs a counselor? There's something deeper here. You need to listen to your daughter and not just dismiss her feelings as an unrequited crush of some sort.

    Posted by Lily- May 9, 12 08:31 PM
  1. I agree with Lily. I can't believe that the answer is that she has some sort of romantic crush on him.

    Having a family friend come over a few times a week is far different from having that man move in with you and become a stepfather. It is a big change, and being a preteen involves lots of changes already.

    Perhaps both of you should see a counselor together, one who will listen to your daughter's concerns (more than just, "mom can't turn off her love for Jeff") and figure out what is really going on here.

    Posted by m May 10, 12 02:29 PM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. I see this a little differently. What I see as an adult that has come from a divorced family whose Mother chose to date after the divorce is this. You as her mother have allowed 2 men into her life her father and her siblings father. You chose them and she chose to follow her mother's lead and allow them into her life. They then both up and left with most likely little to no explanation. What I feel here is she no longer is just willing to accept your judgement of these men as she lived through the history. I can't blame her for that. Now she's doing what she knows how to do as a pre teen child.. I don't say any of this to be mean but after reading your letter what I found to be bothersome is the fact that this child has no say about what you do but is expected to like man whose relationship with you has changed. She trusted him before, now that you too are together she feels the need to be defensive.


    Posted by laura May 9, 12 09:20 AM
  1. I'd have to agree more with Laura than Barbara in that I don't think it's a crush. Perhaps she's afraid that once you two do become an item, he's going to leave like her step dad (and presumably other men that may have briefly been in your and her life). Maybe she loves him so much she's actually pushing him away to test him - that's also another thing that children do, especially at this age, especially when they've been hurt in the past. She wants to see if he's legit or if he's going to leave too. Maybe she has been living a fantasy life that's based on reality where he's the perfect father figure - from afar - and she's afraid of the change that will certainly come (maybe for the worse - at least from her perspective) once he moves in and truly acts as dad.

    I'm sure there are a number of things going on here, and I do think that Barbara is correct in that you can't push it, and you have to reassure her of her fears. She probably needs some form of consistency right now more than ever. Perhaps you and she can join a class together, maybe sewing or painting or anything that just you and she do together every week. Time together, building a bond etc. Also, you can let her know that you will always be there for her, no matter what happens to other people in your life.

    And lastly, make sure to just slow down with this man. There is no need, what-so-ever, to rush anything. Just think of the chaos this is causing now, and if heaven forbid it weren't to eventually work out between you and he, how bad it may become going through something like that again especially given the fear your daughter is now showing. So keep it slow, keep it simple, and I'm sure everything will turn out okay in the end.

    Posted by K May 9, 12 12:08 PM
  1. Do you suppose Amanda knows something about Jeff that Mary doesn't? I'm the grown daughter of an abusive father and stepfather and a twice-divorced mother who enabled and defended the inappropriate behavior of both of these men.
    As a child in a compromising situation, I was defenseless at home -- and my father and stepfather knew it.
    During their respective relationships with my mother, these men initially had their best behavior on display... until my mother got comfortable and grew enamored with them. Then, my father and stepfather both followed the same pattern: first inappropriate actions toward me and my siblings when mom wasn't looking, then gradually, inexcusable actions in plain view. The onset of abuse was so gradual that there were times when only 1 or 2 of us kids would be on the receiving end (I was 1 of 7), and since the rest of the kids were being treated well enough, my father and stepfather were in a position to insist that they were doing nothing wrong. Since they both worked at having decent reputations initially, the blame for what not seemed like "out of character" behavior for these men was shifted to us kids, and their pretend acceptance of us vanished as we were disparaged as "inconvenient", "antagonistic", and "unstable and overly sensitive".
    Mom, who had filled both the mother and father role for the majority of her parenting years, was motivated by desperation to make these relationships "work" because she was tired and lonely; no one who knows what it's like to be a single parent would fault her for these feelings. Unfortunately, her feelings compelled her to blind herself to the abuse of her children as she defended these men, making them out to be wonderful people -- literally, she nicknamed my stepfather "Mr. Wonderful"! She lashed out at, fought bitterly with, and destroyed the reputations of anyone who took notice and said otherwise about them -- babysitters, extended family, and us kids especially. My most honest and rational protests against being abused (physically, verbally, even sexually) were met with dismissive claims that I was childish, or a brat, and then further demoralization followed through punishment, isolation, and the withholding of love and care.
    Mary's description of Jeff ("he's a Christian who displays the utmost respect and my other kids adore him!") and Amanda's sudden 180 behaviorally smack all too familiar.
    If Amanda was not accepting of Jeff's involvement in your lives from the beginning, the warning bells wouldn't be ringing so loudly. But with the situation as it is, I hope you, Barbara, will join men in urging a thorough vetting for this Jeff guy! Consider the possibility that Jeff has now gotten close enough to have the kind of access that allows him to show his true colors, and has begun targeting Amanda because she's the youngest. If this is what's going on, he'll be able to perpetuate his sick behavior by making Mary and the other 2 kids, and anyone else he and Mary can convince, think he's a great guy. It's called hiding in plain sight, and sadly it's all too common.
    I know I sound alarmist for pointing all of this out, and that we all want to be able to give one another the benefit of a doubt -- especially when we're longing for romance. But when you're a parent, erring on the side of caution is entirely necessary for the sake of protecting your children! It's tough work, and getting "the scoop" on someone who has you by the heartstrings is probably the last thing you feel like doing, but it's what's best for your kids and for YOU!
    After all, once the seed of abuse is quietly planted, it grows like a weed. I can guarantee you it won't stop with your kids, and you'll be emotionally stuck defending him even after he finally turns on you.
    Please learn everything you can about Jeff. Please observe his behavior carefully and objectively, and don't gloss over a thing. Please establish an open and confidential rapport with Amanda, and allow her to be comfortable with saying whatever she needs to say about this situation without the threat of punishment or other fallout hanging over her head. If she trusts you enough to communicate the root of her concerns with you, don't be dismissive or punitive. My gut says she's threatening to kill herself AND suggesting other men for you (anyone but Jeff!!) for a reason -- that's it's not just preteen melodramatics. Suggesting other men for you is her way of saying "I want you to be happy, and accept that the addition of a partner to your life will bring you happiness." It's probably the best way she can think of to convey that she's not uncooperative due to jealousy. As for her threat to kill herself -- I don't think she's trying to control your feelings, I think she's trying to let you know that she wants your happiness enough to take herself out of the picture because she can't go on being abused, but acknowledges that Jeff isn't going anywhere. Please please please don't ignore what she's trying to communicate to you, even when you feel like you'd prefer not to hear or believe it. Accept that if she's got something disturbing to share, you'll probably have the urge to diminish or disprove it -- and that this doesn't make you a bad person, it's natural to feel that way. But please realize that it's not in your best interest to be anything but receptive and protective.
    Do your homework, don't leave anything to chance, make an honest assessment of Jeff, and respond accordingly. If ultimately you discover that you're just dealing with an angsty daughter who doesn't know how to handle her feelings about this man's place in your family's life, at least you won't be left to question your judgement. And if there isn't in fact any covert abuse going on, then chances are good that the counselor you've hired will be able to help her through this. (On the other hand, if the counselor is just trying to find a gentle but firm way to tell your daughter "This is how it is going to be regardless of your circumstances" and is not willing to listen to Amanda's story or to address her personal concerns, she's not doing her job, and is just one more dismissive adult your daughter needs to be wary of.)
    Investigating Jeff will give you the confidence of knowing that he is the man that you think he is, not just the man you're hoping that he is!!! Please proceed with caution and consideration, especially with respect for your dear children.

    Posted by Kristen May 9, 12 01:57 PM
  1. I second making sure there isn't abuse or potential abuse involved. Most men aren't interested in spending "countless" hours with unrelated children. Hopefully it is nothing, but given the extreme reaction by your daughter, it is worth and second and third look.

    Posted by PatD May 9, 12 08:21 PM
  1. I really can't believe you intimated Amanda has a crush on this man. Awful, just awful.

    I used to be Amanda; I watched my mother go from relationship to relationship. She brought a man into our lives who gave me the creeps. I couldn't articulate why but I just didn't like the way he looked at me. He once told me (I was Amanda's age) to "go out and get myself laid". I told my mother. Her response - "you're just jealous I have a boyfriend and you don't". When they finally broke up - he threatened to blow up our house with us in it. Aside from this man, there were multiple men (four husbands including my dad - who she had pushed out of our lives). It got to the point where I stopped trying to get to know them.

    You need to talk to your daughter and figure out why she had a change of heart. Don't suggest anything - JUST LISTEN. You may think you're not imposing him as a father figure - but she not only never knew her real father but the other father figure in her life left. So why in the world would she trust that this guy won't too? Also, she has "anxiety issues" and needs a counselor? There's something deeper here. You need to listen to your daughter and not just dismiss her feelings as an unrequited crush of some sort.

    Posted by Lily- May 9, 12 08:31 PM
  1. I agree with Lily. I can't believe that the answer is that she has some sort of romantic crush on him.

    Having a family friend come over a few times a week is far different from having that man move in with you and become a stepfather. It is a big change, and being a preteen involves lots of changes already.

    Perhaps both of you should see a counselor together, one who will listen to your daughter's concerns (more than just, "mom can't turn off her love for Jeff") and figure out what is really going on here.

    Posted by m May 10, 12 02:29 PM
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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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