The father of a teenager struggles to keep things civil with her just as he used to with her mother. Mariella Frostrup says the couples emotional hangover is hurting everyone
The dilemma I dont know what to do with my teenage daughter (shes turning 18 this month). I left her mum five years ago, and moved into a flat close by. Since then she has not sent me a text or a card or anything on my birthday or at Christmas, never invited me to a birthday party or thanked me for gifts and money. Looking back through all the messages she has sent me, every single one has been either an angry tirade or a request for a lift. If I do everything she wants and give her a lift every time she wants it, she is at least indifferent, if not, she gets really angry. She has an older brother and it was difficult with him for a few years too, but weve been getting on better recently, and weve even gone to the pub a couple of times (at his suggestion). But I have seen zero progress with my daughter. She uses the same phrases as her mother when pointing out all my character flaws and I cant help feeling that as she gets older, she is becoming more and more like her mother, which is bad news for our future relationship. I feel that I can do the right things every time and when I trip up once I undo all the good things immediately.
Mariella replies Damned if you do, damned if you dont! The clearest thing I can glean from your letter is that there are high levels of anger bubbling just beneath the surface. Despite the passage of years, it certainly doesnt sound like yours is a break-up thats been resolved but rather an event that continues to reverberate. The words we choose to use are always telling. As you describe it you left her mother, your daughter is becoming more and more like her mother and thats bad news for your relationship. With so little love lost between you and your ex-wife, its small wonder your daughter remains so conflicted in her feelings toward you.
Teenagers are big on self-interest and part of the adolescent learning curve is to work out how to get people to do your bidding. Dont misinterpret demands for lifts or gifts as signs of reconciliation theyre simply survival tactics. Your daughter may display admirably clear focus when it comes to getting guilty Dad to do her bidding, but that doesnt mean shes put the past behind her or reached a healthy understanding of what happened between her parents.
Your observation about her morphing into her mother sounds suspiciously like a barely disguised threat. If she doesnt pull her socks up and start to see your virtues, are you going to leave her, too? I may be oversimplifying the situation, but to an impressionable, vulnerable teenager thats how such language might be read. If it sounds like an ultimatum, you have to expect an equally defensive response. I can see that it might be difficult for you to have a sensible conversation with your children about your decision to end the relationship with their mother and especially so if youre still nursing whatever grievances drove you out the door in the first place.
Any feelings you still harbour towards their mother will be all too visible to your kids. Children dont want to have to make a choice between their parents, or maintain a feud on behalf of either one, but if youre unable to find positive things to say about each other youre forcing them into a confrontational position. No wonder your relationship with your offspring has been tricky when youve clearly not found any peace or resolution to the sentiments that drove you apart. With everyones emotional wounds still so fresh after five long years, no wonder your daughters relationship with you remains volatile. May I suggest you look to yourself before you start trying to unravel your girls behaviour?
Kids learn at the feet of the adults in their lives and while she will have been heavily influenced by her mother, that doesnt mean there arent parts of you in the mix, too. I hope you can take a more mature position, stop comparing and criticising your daughter and her mother and accept that your ongoing emotional hangover is hurting you and those around you. I have no idea what your ex has done to inspire such friction, but I do know that forgiveness, no matter what the cost, is the only way to move forward with all your lives. Kids should not be forced into choosing between their parents or counselling them. What they need is to see adults behaving in functional ways towards each other, despite the ups and downs of their romantic lives.
Im surprised, with so much resentment simmering away, that you even entertain hope for a solid, tranquil and healthy relationship with your daughter. You certainly cant buy her off in the long-term and by continuing to offer your services without expectation of a basic level of civility, youre committing a classic mistake, by trying to insinuate yourself into her affections. Its a typical symptom of the way in which separation and divorce affects children and an example of the insidious legacy of family discord.
Leaping to do your daughters bidding without even a veneer of civility is doing neither of you any good. The chauffeuring will end soon anyway, so dispense with that distraction and step up to the more difficult demands of parenthood and adulthood. Leave her mother out of the equation, whether by alluding to similarities or fuming over past or current slights. Instead, try to develop better avenues of communication. That cant happen until you confront and resolve the events in the past that are still sowing seeds of discord today.
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