Q: I’m in a relationship fraught with conflict. I’m living 90% of the time and in love with a divorced father of two young girls, 6 and 4 years old. He has approximately 40% parenting time. Although we waited a year before exposing the kids to our relationship, they seemed excited to be with me, enjoying our time together. After the COVID lockdown, we started some sleepovers at my home, which they requested and seemed to love. They wanted me to braid their hair, bake with and read to them, but recently, that’s all changed — they’re openly rejecting me, especially the oldest girl, who has frequent meltdowns when she doesn’t get her own way, and isn’t the center of attention. She’s very hostile towards me now, repeatedly telling me I’m not her mom and “only her dad can do her hair.” Her behavior has escalated to being aggressive towards me (kicking me on one occasion), my friends, and extremely abusive to her younger sister, bullying and physically attacking her. When I address my concerns to my partner, he becomes defensive, protecting his daughter. I see a significant change in her attitude towards me. He and his ex-wife do not get along well. I’m not sure our relationship will survive this. Please help!

A: This sounds extremely stressful for you.There are many possible explanations for this behavior and the attitude changes. Most children experience a strong reaction to their parents’ divorce, manifesting differently with each child, partly due to temperamental differences. Some openly express their feelings, while others show almost no discernable sign of distress. If there’s hostility between parents, children don’t feel good about themselves. Reactions vary, but it’s common for a child to feel responsible for the break-up, that she’s not lovable. Her self-esteem is impacted by feelings of anger, guilt, and sadness. Children of this age may have the fantasy their parents might reconcile.

There are a number of reasons to account for the girls’ shifting loyalties, yet more importantly, the older girl’s underlying emotional imbalance is evident in the many adjustments demanded of her (have there been multiple moves, school changes, etc?). Children need to count on their parents, to believe that despite the marriage ending, they will continue to parent. Their adjustment and, ultimately, their healing are related to a number of factors. Above all, they need to have their childhood.

Although you didn’t specifically address this, I’m curious about any hostility from their mom regarding your relationship with her ex-husband. If his “ex” feels threatened by your involvement in her children’s lives, worried you could replace her, she may be communicating that to her children, warning them against getting close to you. The message is clear: “I’m your mother and she’s trying to take my place.” Hostility between parents directly impacts children, blocking their healthy adjustment, leaving long-term wounds that may never heal. His “ex” may not agree that the children are actually fortunate to have another invested, caring adult in their lives. Parents often are unaware that their hostility is detected on their child’s “radar.”

Children can survive their parents’ divorce, even thriving, when both parents work collaboratively for the best interests of their children. How much stress they endure is determined mostly by parents’ successful commitment to keeping animosity away from them. Parents’ reactions to each other influence how children respond to them. If those reactions are negative, children often experience a conflict of loyalty to both parents. If there is sibling or peer bullying/aggression, there may be high conflict between the parents. Bullying is not exclusive to children. Children often have controlling parental role models, who treat others aggressively, either verbally, physically, or both. Witnessing this reinforces a child’s perception that aggression and violence are acceptable, used as an appropriate quick fix to problems. Having two homes, or more — mom’s house, dad’s house, and possibly yours — can be challenging for children when mom and dad aren’t co-parenting. Too many frequent transitions/changes can also adversely impact children. Chronic negative messages about the other parent and/or the parent’s new partner keep children in the middle: the casualties of a bad divorce. While the parents’ suffering continues, so does that of each child, manifesting in different ways. One child may withdraw, another has trouble sleeping, another may become more aggressive in school, while another has chronic “meltdowns.” Children have a right to love both their parents. They must never be expected to take sides or be used for their parents’ emotional support, to ease their loneliness, or soften their anger or sadness.

Also, if children experience excessive control or too many overwhelming changes in their lives, one result is excessive compliance. However, this can also push a child to rebel against everything, which might manifest as rudeness or hostility. A child’s strong will to regain some sense of control, to recover some autonomy, may show up as extreme defiance. If we render children powerless, by exerting control, this invokes anger, not always seen in the moment. The anger doesn’t disappear; it will show up at some point. Although parents may feel they’ve “won” by demanding “compliance,” they’ve actually done collateral damage to the parent-child relationship. Forcing children to obey with threats and punishment only makes them feel helpless. Over time, this parenting approach makes children angry, with them searching for ways to claim some power. How this is accomplished depends on the child’s temperament and the particular situation. Children learn how to use power from their parents. If feeling helpless, they learn to channel their anger by directing it at another person (disrespect?). A young child yelling, screaming, having a “meltdown” is telling her parents the only way she knows how that something is amiss, that she’s struggling. Typically, by 6 a child has learned acceptable ways to regulate her emotions and communicate her needs with words more effectively. She doesn’t always know what to do with these strong emotions, especially if she’s feeling jealous, resentful, overtired, or powerless.

Your partner can talk with his daughters, in particular the oldest one, telling her: “You never have to choose or take sides. You can love Mommy, Daddy, and (your name). Some day Mommy will probably have someone special in her life, and you can love him too, if it feels right. Your feelings belong to you. It’s always better to choose love rather than hate.” It might be that these girls are hearing something about you, either causing their divorce or trying to replace their mom, which makes them feel guilty for caring about you. As children shuttle back and forth between households, they often carry much more than their backpacks. Sometimes they’re asked to carry messages, or they’re expected to be spies, loyal allies. For example: “Tell your dad’s girlfriend she’s NOT your mom and she can’t braid your hair. That’s only for me to do.” Or: “Be sure to let your father know it’s his job, not hers, to do things for you. You don’t have to listen to his girlfriend.” When children are caught in a volley of messages that are the responsibility of the parents to communicate directly, their security and emotional health are severely compromised. Children have a basic need to belong and will do almost anything to ensure they are loved and cared for, sometimes even at their own expense. They’ll often do or say what they believe their parents need to hear and see. The fear for them is if Dad left Mom, couldn’t he also decide to abandon them?

I recommend the book “The Dinosaurs’ Divorce,” to read with them. It’s helpful, and healing, for children to understand their feelings are normal, that similar situations happen to others. A book such as this provides opportunities for children to talk about their feelings. When they know there won’t be any judgment, shaming, or consequences for their strong emotions, it creates a wonderful space in which a young child can ask questions and express concerns, sharing how she’s experiencing the changes.

Finally, if you believe the oldest girl’s behavior is a loud, intense cry for help, try gently encouraging your partner to seek psychological intervention for her. Neuro-pysch testing may be indicated to circumvent problems becoming more serious as she grows, undermining her emotional development and success.

“Co-parenting. It’s not a competition between two homes. It’s a collaboration of parents doing what is best for the kids.” — Heather Hetchler