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I'm a long distance father to an eight year old daughter and a four year old son, whom I see on average most weekends. My daughter has periodically lost her sense of confidence, and recently has begun to say things like, "No one wants to partner with me in school", "My friend K is just better than me, she's so popular," "I need to learn how to be popular," etc.

As a long distance parent, how can I help with these situations, and what can I do to boost my daughter's confidence?

When I'm around, I try to respond to statements like the above by asking for more specifics, by talking about my own experience of rejection in school, and saying to my daughter that while she might believe she is dumb or inferior, I don't, and as I've taught her many things I know that can't be true, etc. But often I feel like I'm going about this wrongly, as she'll just switch off or change the subject. Sometimes I feel like I get through, especially when I can manage to have a conversation (I try to avoid lectures). The problem is that I'm not around all the time so I'm not there when these things strike her. Talking about this face to face itself is difficult and in a phone / video call, which my daughter anyway does not like, it is impossible. So what can I do to contribute to solving this?

Some more elements of the context are important. I've posted a number of questions here so my messy situation may be recognisable. My wife has what I think I can best sum up as mild narcissistic tendencies. She was also emotionally abusive towards me for much of our marriage, until very recently, when I stopped staying with her during the times I visit. Her abusive behaviour has improved since (we may save our marriage), as well as her aggression with the kids, but with our daughter she still will:

  • React at times to our daughter's tears at rejection / bullying with "What is there to cry about?"
  • Harshly rebuke our daughter in front of others for small mistakes like dropping something or being absent minded, including at times using mild force, like squeezing her arm painfully
  • Internally compare our daughter to some friends of hers in a way that implies the others are superior because they are confident and "strong" (she doesn't explicitly say this to our daughter)

In these ways I think she is possibly contributing to the problem. In light of her personality and our marital situation I can't have a really productive conversation with my wife about these issues (NB: hence, please don't provide me with advice around communicating with my wife). What can I do as the long distance parent to help here? I'm very worried about her.

Edit: An additional question. Would it be helpful to provide books about assertiveness etc? My wife may contradict them, but will that destroy their effectiveness?

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Your options are severely limited, and I doubt you can do more than you're already doing.

I'd try to create situations in which your daughter experiences herself as capable, and gently push her to try out for new experiences which she has good chances to master. Also do that with things she thinks she's not good at, if you believe that she's wrong about herself. When she sees that she can master problems she thought she couldn't, that should build self confidence. Also steer her away from projects you think will overwhelm her for the time being, suggest easier ones or help her achieve the ones you think are yet beyond her.

You should also address the popularity issue. It's possible that your daughter isn't popular and she's right about it. You'll have to decide whether this is important enough for her and you to actually do something about it, because I believe that your daughter is right: Up to a point, you can learn to be popular, but you have to invest a lot of work, and maybe your daughter would rather be good at something else. I'm not so sure that being popular instills lasting self-confidence, since it seems to me that if your self-confidence comes from others liking the way you present yourself to them, instead of from other skills you are good at on your own, then it's only skin deep and always in danger of draining away. I'd especially talk to her about how being popular often has very little to do with being good ("K's just better than me, she's so popular).

(edited to add:) How can you breach the subject? You said she doesn't want to talk about it, so I'd take a detour. I'd talk about popularity in other people. For example, if you watched a movie together, talk about the different characters, and how they treated each other, and how it all turned out, and what you each thought about that. Or maybe you both observe some scene in real life that you can then make the topic of discussion. You don't explicitly need to make popularity the focus of the discussion, and you don't need to explicitly link it to her - if you talk about your take on human relations and values often enough, I'm sure she'll pick up on the parts that are relevant to her. This might not be of immediate help, but it will give her some context which will hopefully eventually enable her to develop a self-image that isn't based primarily on how popular she is.

Another avenue might be books, if she's a reader: Much of who I wanted to be came from the protagonists of children's books. As a child I modeled myself after them. Since I loved adventure books, what seemed to matter wasn't popularity, but having a few good friends you could trust, and being loyal and brave etc.

  • On the popularity issue, I agree with you, and my first reaction was to tell her about how I was unpopular in school for years and then became very popular - primarily because I focused on my own strengths, though not consciously. That example seemed to help. But how does one initiate these conversations when I'm there? Mostly she doesn't wasn't to talk about it – SGo Jun 19 '18 at 3:02
  • I edited my answer to account for this. – Pascal says Talk To Monica Jun 19 '18 at 6:46
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You're in a rough spot, but there are some tricks you can do.

First, let's get one thing out of the way. Girls are weird. This is normal-ish for them. As a guy, it's easy to forget how different girls view the world. I often times find my self, saying to my wife (in a joking context), "but... that... You're such a girl." It's easy to forget, especially these days when a lot of people like to pretend it's not so, that girls are just different.

Now, some of what you say is normal for a girl her age. They tend to measure themselves against the other women in their life and will constantly fall short because they are not yet women. It's how they learn and is very much the same as boys that compete against their dads, till that one magical day when they win.

With that said, your correct to try to boost her confidence. Your sharing of stories is a great way to do it. I suggest that you carve out a specific time. Make that her time, then call her every day at that time.

I would suggest that you get a wall clock (the $10 analog variety) then decorate the hour in which you will call. Give it to her as a gift, then follow through 100% of the time in calling her.

More then anything this shows that you care, that someone cares, and that you will always care (there will always be another 7pm). More than anything that will boost her self-confidence.

Next, be prepared to be a bit "bitchy". Remember, girls and women, tend to be very "catty" compared to guys. As guys, we tend to either accept someone or hate them. There's not a lot of in-between. Girls tend to be very odd. My wife invited people she hates to our wedding and was genuinely sad when they didn't come. It's an aspect I will never understand. Be prepared to act like that, and take the lash back when talking to her about her friends.

So, how was school?

Liz said my hair was too big.

I don't really care with Liz thinks, how was your day?

It was bad, didn't you hear, Liz hates my hair.

Meh, what does she know, her unibrow can stop traffic. Talk about big hair, it looks like she has a ferret on her forehead.

Laughs a bit.

So what else happened?

I dropped my tray at lunch and everyone laughed?

Was it funny?

No, I was embarrassed.

Well, these things happen to everybody. This one time......

laughs

How did you do on your math test?

I got an A.

That's great news.

But I got a C in English.

Ok, well we will have to work on that a bit, but an A is an A.

and so on. Keeping the conversation positive, but don't be afraid to deflate her "friends" a bit.

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