Q: I have a real problem with my bonus daughter’s lying. I overhear her telling her mother how she wants to go home when she is with us, but her father won’t let her. She never tells us she wants to go home. On the contrary, she tells us how much she loves being with us. I think she’s playing her parents and it’s causing a big problem between her dad and me. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: If she’s doing what you say she’s doing, it may not be for the reasons you suspect. She may not be playing anyone — she may be miserable.
There is a common reason this sort of thing happens, and I will lay it out as best I can. Before I start, what I will describe is not specific to moms’ or dads’ behaviors. Either parent or both parents can be the perpetrators. I am using the gender of the parents you used when asking your question.
I see what you describe most often when one parent has recoupled and appears “happy,” and the other has not. Add to that the type of parent who feels compelled to tell the child how their life is over each time the child goes to the other parent’s home and you have a child who feels guilty for having fun when gone and lies about it.
If you’re overhearing things like, “I know, but Dad won’t let me go…” she’s blaming it on Dad because she doesn’t want Mom to get angry or hurt Mom’s feelings. She wants to remain in her favor, so she blames the pain on someone whom she perceives is at the root of the pain in the first place — Dad. She reassures her Mom of her love, but remains exactly where she is because in reality she loves both her parents and is having fun at Dad’s house.
This is a perfect example of how parents put their kids in the middle and have no idea that they are doing it. To further complicate the issue, it’s also common at this point for the parent in your example to see the pressure the child is under and say things like, “I don’t want my daughter to feel as if she has to come see me. I will let her make her own decision.”
In a child’s mind, this translates to, “My Dad (or Mom) doesn’t care if I see him (or her) or not,” and in response to not believing her presence means anything, slowly stops going to see Dad. Then Mom says, “I’m not going to make her go if she doesn’t want to…” and it all started by both parents unknowingly putting their child in the middle. A child does not have the emotional make-up or knowledge to make adult decisions. All she knows she loves both of her parents and she’s doing her best to juggle the chaos.
What to do? Before you start accusing this child of manipulation, take a look at how the homes are handling the back and forth. Do they need to improve their communication? Do they see the importance of being on the same page and reinforcing the child’s time with both of them or are they playing the “best parent” game and undermining each other? The answer could be as simple as allowing the child to love her both of her parents on her own terms. That’s good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. ©2020 Jann Blackstone Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.