Q: I’m a devoted, divorced dad, recently remarried. My ex-wife is still single, although dating. My 9-year-old daughter was edgy since getting back from an overnight with her mom. She was “tightly wound” when she came home, which had become a trend. I finally had to speak frankly with her, because she was reacting defensively to everything. I thought she just needed more snuggles, more attention, more me, but instead we ended up talking about all kinds of things. The heart of it was my daughter feeling her mom’s comments usually have a subtext intended for her to feel bad, guilty, insecure, or out-of-favor. She also shared that her mom says nasty things about me and my wife. My daughter returns to me ready for battle. I need help on how to help my kids (also have a son, 6) transition back and forth more smoothly. I thought we had sound agreements in place — between my ex-wife, me and my new wife. It’s exhausting. Your thoughts?

A: Thank you for this question, which really underscores the importance of respecting children’s feelings and their boundaries. So often they become the casualties of their parents’ unhealed emotions, their residual hostility. Although I’ve written about this many times, it bears reinforcement, as what you describe is sadly not an unusual dynamic. Your sensitivity in addressing the emotional root of your daughter’s unpleasant behavior is commendable, instead of reacting to how it manifests on the surface. Speaking with your daughter about her needs, boundaries, and communication is a great starting place. It seems she may feel safe enough to “ready for battle” when returning to your home, needing to release those intense emotions. It could also be she simply can no longer contain her frustration and anxiety. Either way, try shaping your home as the safe place for an ongoing “living laboratory” in which to practice different role plays — helping her try various approaches of what to say, how to ask for what she needs, how to communicate feelings honestly and assertively, with setting boundaries. That will help her determine what works best for her, while “playing” it out with you and your wife. She can then feel more confident speaking up at her mom’s when any uncomfortable comments are made. It’s important to support her in this ongoing practice, in finding what works best for her — an empowering exercise for her in any relationship. In doing this, simply listen to and validate her emotional experience, without engaging in negative remarks about her mom.

The next step is to speak openly with your children about how they can “unpack” their emotions, to more seamlessly transition between homes. I use a backpack metaphor with children, helping them understand, that just as they carry their clothes, school supplies, homework, etc., between homes, they also carry an emotional mix in their backpacks, which often adds considerable weight. It helps them learn problem solving with how to optimally process those feelings. Establish a consistent, predictable ritual before they leave your home, and when they return, pacing the transitions as calmly and peacefully as possible. Rushed, angry, stressful transitions are emotionally damaging to children — all that anxiety is carried in their backpacks between homes! Meanwhile, let your daughter know you will always listen to her, that it’s safe to openly address with you any fears, concerns, emotional difficulties she’s having.

Finally, revisit the agreements to which you referred having established with their mom. Perhaps it’s time for you both to revisit the agreements, addressing what’s in the children’s best interests. Rather than initiating potential confrontation, ask your ex-wife if there are lingering concerns that could be getting in her way with the co-parenting, asking how you can be most helpful in supporting her parenting. Always start with what you most appreciate she’s doing well or that’s helpful (everyone has something positive to acknowledge), focusing on something positive the children possibly have shared that was fun with her. Validate how challenging the job of single parenting is during her “on duty” time, expressing appreciation for taking such good care of your children. At that point, it’s a good time to review how the agreements are working for your children and how you can do better with collaboration. Above all, I believe parents want what’s best for their children, thus appealing to their better sensibilities usually brings a positive outcome.

“This is probably one of the most difficult challenges any parent could face — learning to love the other parent enough to make the children first.” — Iyanla Vanzant