Daughter afraid to visit her divorced father

Parent Q&A

September 30, 2001|By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. | By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.,NEW YORK TIMES SPECIAL FEATURES

Q. I have 8-year-old and 4-year-old daughters who are as different as night and day. About a year ago, I separated from their father, then got divorced. He was a lousy father who never spent any time with them alone.

The girls and I now live in a house by ourselves. Their father gets them Tuesday and Thursday for about two hours and Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. He has a live-in girlfriend but claims they are just friends.

The 8-year-old is afraid to spend the night with Daddy and doesn't even like to go over there. She gets stomach aches when it's time for my ex to come. Now she won't go to any of her friends' houses without me or do anything else alone. She has completely changed since all of this happened, and I don't know what to do about it. We are in counseling.

My big questions is: Why do children need a dad if he is a lousy dad? He has bad temper tantrums, which scare the 8-year-old. My ex and I don't speak to each other when we exchange the kids. He's always threatening to take me to court so he can get overnight visitation rights. The 4-year-old is fine with everything for the most part. She likes to go to Daddy's and likes the girlfriend.

Any suggestions?

A. I am so glad you are getting counseling for your problems. They sound pretty overwhelming - for you and for your older daughter. Divorce is always hardest on the children. Yours sounds particularly difficult because you and your ex-husband are still in battle. The children suffer from your hostility toward each other.

Your daughters do need a father, and, unfortunately, your ex-husband is the best they've got. I hope your counselor can help you and your older daughter adjust better to the situation. She probably doesn't dare let herself relate to her father because she feels that he has deserted you and her. If she lets herself care about him, she'll be deserting you. If that happens, you might leave too. All children of divorce fear that if one parent leaves, the other might too.

I agree that overnight visitation would be too much for the 8-year-old to handle right now.

I hope you and your daughter can get more reconciled about your children's need for two caring parents. Your counselor should be able to help you with this.

Q. My neighbor's son, who is 7, is living in a fantasy world. He has a large reading pillow, which is the single focus of his love and affection. He carries on lengthy conversations with the pillow, making it speak in a strange voice. He frequently kisses the pillow and sometimes abuses it as well.

This little boy seems to have no friends. I recently invited him over for lunch to get to know him better. He came to my house carrying the pillow. First, he insisted I make a plate of cotton candy for his pillow. I didn't have any, but to humor him I placed several cotton balls on a plate.

We took our lunch out to the back patio. He asked if there were any ants, because his pillow was deathly afraid of them. When he saw an ant, he jumped up and made the pillow scream, "Ants! Aaaaah!" Needless to say, it was a painful lunch.

His mother is a friend, and we are both concerned about this child's obsession with fantasy. She has confiscated the pillow several times and prohibited the boy from making it speak. I'm not sure which is better: to squelch his imagination or to allow it to dominate his life. - C.N., Harrisburg, Pa.

A. The pillow is not the problem. It sounds as if this boy needs psychiatric help. At this point, his pillow may be absolutely critical to his sanity.

Among the signs that he needs help are his fears and his reliance on this imaginary friend. The most telltale is that other children shun him; they know he's not able to communicate with them.

I would urge his mother to seek expert help for him - the sooner, the better.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, care of the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to: families@nytsyn.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Dr. Brazelton regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

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