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I am the father of two children - an eight year old daughter and a four year old son. I have been very close to them, in that they both play,share and trust me. Both also have special activities that they engage in with me specifically. As a rule both children are are also respectful and caring, both towards others and towards their parents.

In the last couple of months, though, my daughter, while continuing to play and talk with me, has started suddenly inserting comments into conversations that seem clearly intended to hurt me. She always does it with a big smile like she's joking, and she clearly knows she is crossing a line, but she does it anyway. Some examples include:

  • "When you're unhappy, I feel happy"
  • "You're leaving [for out of town] in half an hour? Why don't you go now?"
  • "My brother might miss you, but I'm not going to miss you"
  • "Mama is nicer than you anyway"

I emphasise that this is combined with other loving and normal behaviour - this is only about 5% of the interactions.

The obvious connection here is to the fact that I am in a somewhat complicated marital situation at the moment. My wife (w/ the kids) lives in a different city from me, and I visit almost every weekend. My wife was emotionally abusive for the last several years (see for instance this question or this one) and in November last year I took a separate place to stay for the days I come to their city. Since then however my wife's behaviour has improved, and while she still is egoistic and distant, she is no longer openly contemptuous and does not engage in threats or abusive language etc. I think chances are higher than not that our marriage will survive. I now spend more time in their residence then in mine when in their city, and my wife has started joining the kids in coming to my residence as well. My daughter was initially very frightened by the possibility of us breaking up, but doesn't raise that now. But it is in fact as things were improving between us that this behaviour has now started.

How should I respond to this? I tackled the first statement ("I am happy" etc.) by saying I didn't think that was true, and I really hoped it wasn't true. When she interrupted me repeatedly with "BORING" while I was talking, I told her this was disrespectful conduct, and she has largely stopped that.

What else should I do? On my next visit I think I may take her aside when this kind of thing happens, tell her that if she is angry with me or scared about us she needs to tell me, and that trying to hurt me is not acceptable and doesn't work in a family either.

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    "I tackled the first statement ("I am happy" etc.) by saying I didn't think that was true, and I really hoped it wasn't true." But you didn't ask her (why does she say that, why would she be happy etc.)? – Anne Daunted May 25 '18 at 9:51
  • No, the context was inappropriate for that - my son was with us and we were about to leave to go out somewhere so a large group was about to join us. But if it comes up again I might ask. – SGo May 25 '18 at 18:13
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It is obvious that your wife's abusive behavior has caused your daughter some emotional trauma, and that the crumbling of your marriage is affecting her.

There are many challenges to parenting a child who has been abused, or children who are insecure about being loved. They may try to test your love by doing "bad" things, to see if you will continue to love them even when they are bad. When someone who you love, and who you believed loved you, abuses you, you become mistrustful of anyone who claims to love you. Fool me once...

Maybe that's all your daughter is doing. She may just want to hear that you love her, and that you will continue to love her even when she is bad. It sounds as though you are doing all the right things for her, since she isn't acting out very often. Also, the child will only "test" the love of someone who they believe loves them, and who they trust. She believes that you love her, she just needs to be reassured every now and then.

Their reasoning goes something like this ("If I can say mean things to Daddy and he still loves me, that means he really means it when he says he loves me"). A child who has been abused is going to have trust issues.

Now, obviously she needs to learn that this sort of talk is not acceptable, but keep in mind that her underlying motivation may not be a desire to hurt you, but a fear of loss or of rejection. Gently correct her, but reassure her that you still love her even if what she says makes you sad (I'd say "sad" rather than "hurt", both to emphasize the temporary nature of it and to focus on what you are feeling rather than what she did)

If she says "When you feel unhappy, I feel happy" you might say "I am glad when you are happy, but it makes me a little sad that it happens when I am unhappy. That seems very strange, doesn't it, because I know that you love me and I love you. Why do you think you might feel that way?". Sometimes it helps just to be given permission to "get the bad stuff out".

When she knows that you are going to be out of town and she tells you she wants you to go right away...that made me immediately think about my daughter, who does something that may be similar. She has a very difficult time dealing with feelings of loss (she was abandoned as an infant in China) and when someone who she loves is going to be gone (my husband used to take week long business trips) she would start rejecting him and turning her face away and not wanting him to even touch her in the weeks prior to his departure. She wasn't trying to punish him, this was just the only way that she could deal with the loss. A little like ripping off the band-aid.

"I'm not going to miss you" (sounds like she is trying to convince herself)

"Mama is nicer than you" (sounds like she may be desperately trying to convince herself that her mother loves her)

Please be patient with her, and understand that she needs you to be strong for her. Be her Daddy rock. When your whole world crumbles you need something to hold on to.

  • I think what you're saying sounds very true, especially as my wife used the silent treatment a lot in our marriage. My daughter has seen this and the idea that love is conditional is probably deep rooted for her now. The fear that I might leave is also something she worries about - and said in the beginning when our marriage reached breaking point. I really like the suggestion re saying sad. But I guess I'd ask one question - should I not also convey that this isn't the way for her to deal with her anger or fears about us? – SGo May 25 '18 at 18:22
  • And the comment about your daughter - that does seem very true if mine too. She never liked goodbyes. – SGo May 25 '18 at 18:23
  • I would try to help her talk about her fears, and then teach her that there are better ways of expressing it than the way she is doing. When she says one of the things listed above, treat what she said as if she was expressing what you believe to be underneath. And divert. She: "you are going away and I won't miss you". You: when people go away, even for a little while, it hurts. I try not to miss people, either. Hey, when I get back on Monday, how about if we all go out to pizza..." – Francine DeGrood Taylor May 25 '18 at 20:13
  • She: "Mom is nicer than you" You: "I'm glad that you love your Mom and that she loves you. It's hard to be the Daddy sometimes, when you have to tell your kids no (or whatever you did) but I hope that you always know I do it because I love you and I'm concerned about you..." – Francine DeGrood Taylor May 25 '18 at 20:16
  • This might seem like you are "letting her get away with it" but hopefully this is just a temporary thing born out of her fear and hurt. Let her know that you hear her feelings, not her words. Give her a little time to settle before you start taking her to task for the way she expresses her negative feelings. – Francine DeGrood Taylor May 25 '18 at 20:22
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How should I respond to this?

I think Francine DeGrood Taylor hit the nail on the head with her excellent answer, so this is just throwing in my two cents.

At the moment it happens, you can simply counter the statement with one that is true.

"When you're unhappy, I feel happy"
I wonder why that is? Because when you're happy, it makes me happy, and when you're sad, I'm sad that you feel that way.
"You're leaving [for out of town] in half an hour? Why don't you go now?"
Because I want to spend more time with you (and...)
"My brother might miss you, but I'm not going to miss you"
Well, I will miss you.
"Mama is nicer than you anyway"
I'm glad that Mama is nice to you. I want you to feel happy and loved.

Then you can wait to see how she deals with this information.

She needs to express herself and test the waters. At a convenient time when all is well, ask her about why she says these things, and listen carefully to the answer, reading between the lines.

If she says, "I don't know," it's probably too difficult to put the things she's feeling into words. If she says, "Because I don't like it when you leave," you have an answer. If she says, "Because I don't like you," ask her why she feels that way, and what you have done to make her feel that way.

However, I would not want to encourage really rude behavior, like her dismissing you with, "BORING!"

I told her this was disrespectful conduct, and she has largely stopped that.

That was the right thing to do.

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    I think your outlined responses are perfect for the situation. I should mention that one of the problems here is clearly her comparing her mother to me, and trying to show that she is close to her mother. I'm not sure why this is happening, but it makes more sense for me to do what you suggest than to do anything else. I wish I could accept your answer as well as Francine's - since she provided more detail I have accepted hers, but upvoted yours, and hope it'll show up just below hers so anyone coming here can read both... and a special thank you to you, your answers are always illuminating! – SGo May 26 '18 at 17:15
  • @SGo - I really like Francine's answer; I'm glad you chose hers. In fact, I may ping her to ask her to have a look at your most recent questions. – anongoodnurse Oct 20 '18 at 1:03
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The obvious connection here is to the fact that I am in a somewhat complicated marital situation at the moment.

I wouldn't say this is impossible, but my personal attitude about most things, and discerning my kiddo's behaviors in particular, is that unless a specific reason has specific evidence supporting it I assume the more overall answer is true. In this case I'd be more likely to identify this as general boundary-pushing behavior and kids trying things out.

Your daughter knows this is not nice, but doesn't know how not nice. She's feeling around the edges of things and seeing what you do. Or/And she's testing out her ability to have an impact. This psychologist mentions a child being able to even understand empathy at age five, and says this about a child your daughter's age:

By the time a child is 8, he can grapple with more complex moral decisions in which he must realize that someone else’s feelings may be different from his own.

Your first and third example are exact cases of comparing two people having two different emotional reactions. She may be testing out this as an idea - do you disagree that this is possible? - or she may be flexing this new knowledge to push the envelope.

You know your daughter better than us and know whether taking her aside is the right answer. With my kiddo - who admittedly is a bit younger and maybe less able to accept some focused guidance at this point - I would more likely not make too big a deal out of it lest I teach him that, yes, this is a way to get a reaction. I'd stick with "that's not nice," or "it's not polite to say things like that," and emphasize that I expect him to be nice and polite. "Saying that hurts my feelings. You don't like it when someone hurts your feelings, do you? I don't like it either."

I sometimes use "why should I do X nice thing for you when you're not being nice to me?" I don't want to teach him that courtesy is something to do purely for transactional reasons but his capacity to understand larger scope is kinda limited. Your daughter may be able to grasp a more subtle correction about the value of just being good in general.

  • Thank you. I think the situation might actually be a combination of this and the next answer. My daughter is both empathetic and articulate in expressing her feelings - something I've always focused on in my interactions with her - so in that sense I think she knows what she's doing. But as you say there's definitely an element of "testing the limits" that I can see (a big grin, slightly nervous, etc) - but I can see a lot of what Francine has suggested too. More in my comment on her answer, but how would you suggest teaching respect in a situation when a child knows they're being hurtful? – SGo May 25 '18 at 18:17
  • She does also seem to be aware that she's getting a rise out of me. At one point in frustration I said "sometimes I think you just say some things to make me feel bad." She nodded with a kind of fake enthusiasm. I couldn't pursue it then unfortunately. – SGo May 25 '18 at 18:25
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    She may have underlying anger that makes her want to punish you for whatever part you played in the breakup of her "happy home" (it probably wasn't all that happy, but even in a bad situation kids will cling to what they have. Their trust is broken, and they believe that any change will just make things worse) This issue needs to be dealt with more carefully; you can't make her anger go away by responding in kind, punishing her (either overtly or by making her feel guilty or bad) or even reasoning with her. She might be able to talk about it if you could listen without judgement. – Francine DeGrood Taylor May 25 '18 at 20:31

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