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My daughter is 5. Sometimes my husband (her father) will try to 'play' with her by pretending to be a lion, going roar and pawing at her in a playful manner. Sometimes she's okay with this and has fun, and other times it makes her very upset.

He sometimes does this at transition times, like arriving home from school, when we already have a difficult time. He'll do this against the car window while she's inside about to get out.

She's expressed to me several times that she doesn't like it when he does this, it makes her upset. He has also heard her say she doesn't like it. She cries and gets upset and doesn't want to say hello to him.

He said it's just a joke and he's playing, and he should be able to do as he pleases in his own home and she should get over it. I've told him that a joke is only funny if everyone thinks it is. It's only play if everyone thinks it's fun.

He says sometimes she doesn't mind him doing it, and how is he supposed to know if she'll get upset or not.

I told him to please stop because it makes her upset, and then I need to calm her down afterwards. She'll be fine, and then he'll terrorise her and go away somewhere else and I need to pick up the pieces. Now he's angry at me because I got really upset with him and told him to stop. He's discouraged because he can't play with her the way he wants to.

They have a very different relationship dynamic. He's very playful/fun and she and I are very serious. I try to leave them to figure it out, but I just can't see this situation objectively because I'm on her side (she's like me). I understand 5yos cry a lot about everything, so I don't know if it's reasonable to let him go on with this and it's not as big of a deal as I'm making it.

PS I'm the wife/mom, I know my nick is a man's name, it's my initials.

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    we would welcome your husband here as well. It may help him to see that we all mess up (it’s a default for parents), but that we self-reflect our behaviors and are not afraid to ask for the input of others. And I bet the absolute vast majority here is dealing with the patterns we learned in our childhood and other relationships. The key is to recognize them first (no judgement here) and then decide what we want to continue and what we will try to do differently. And breaking patterns that are deeply ingrained is hard and continuous work.
    – Stephie
    Sep 27, 2023 at 18:01
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    @mcraenich I understand the sentiment of what you are saying but consider that an adult would not enjoying playing peek-a-boo or being picked up and spun around while a child might.
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 27, 2023 at 20:49
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    @mcraenich I know what you mean. The key bit for me is "He said it's just a joke and he's playing, and he should be able to do as he pleases in his own home and she should get over it" - if he was saying that about upsetting an adult I hope it would be more obvious that this attitude is an issue (though it should be obvious in both cases). Sep 27, 2023 at 21:05
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    Just a thought: the way he interacts with her will set the tone and be a model for her future relationships with males/men. Considering that kind of thing has helped me be a better father. Maybe, at the right moment, point that out to him and ask if he wants her to expect and/or accept males ignoring her requests to stop doing things.
    – JimmyJames
    Sep 27, 2023 at 21:15
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    Ask him what he thinks his daughter should do if, in 10 years time, a teenage boy repeatedly does something that makes her upset and uncomfortable, and won't stop when told to stop. Then ask whether he thinks his current behaviour is helping her to learn to do that, or making her more likely to just accept the other person's actions?
    – Brondahl
    Sep 28, 2023 at 11:23

7 Answers 7

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In this case, your husband is not behaving like a mature adult, or how a good parent should behave towards a child. Your stand on the issue - to interfere on the part of your daughter - is not only correct, but your responsibility as a loving and concerned parent.

It sounds like your husband values being a playful guy, which is fine if the child's feelings are taken into account. But because it's always fun for him, he can't seem to understand that it's not always fun for everyone. It also seems that he takes the rejection of it personally, and blame-shifts onto a 5 year old ("...he should be able to do as he pleases in his own home and she should get over it.")

He says sometimes she doesn't mind him doing it, and how is he supposed to know if she'll get upset or not.

By reading her body language. If he gets into a crouch position and she smiles or laughs, it's fine to move forward. If she looks tired, frightened or tense, it's not. If he's unsure, wait a while until she seems relaxed.

This is what your child will learn/is learning from his behavior: his feelings matter more than hers. It might even go as far as her feelings don't matter. As kids tend to think the world revolves around them, when something is wrong, they tend to blame themselves; they tend to experience negativity/criticism not as a reflection on a discrete character trait (e.g. bravery/perseverance/resilience) but on their inherent "goodness". This self-blame can develop into low self-esteem and problems later in life, especially if it's frequent and across several or more aspects.

A well known example similar to this is tickling. There is welcome, loving tickling and there is abusive tickling. Adults like to tickle kids because we like to hear their laughter, and interpret their laughter as joy. Kids enjoy the attention of their parents, the physical contact, the roughhousing, and the sensation of being tickled to a point. At some point, tickling becomes uncomfortable. It becomes so uncomfortable that it was used through the ages in different cultures as a form of punishment/torture on adults. Most parents are aware of abusive tickling and give the child some power in this very unequal dynamic: stops to check in with the child, and a safety word, or "Stop", which is consistently respected by "the tickle monster".

Perhaps this is how your husband was raised, so it's his default setting, or he may be lacking the empathy needed to see this issue from your daughter's perspective. Either way, it will damage his relationship with his daughter to some degree.*

It may be that this is the only situation in which your daughter's feelings are disregarded. If so, repeated explanations that what she feels, no matter if he thinks it's appropriate or not, is as valid as his own feelings, and if he values having his feelings taken into consideration, so will his daughter, even (maybe especially) at the tender age of 5 may do the job. If you see other evidence of this lack of empathy with your child, he may need a third party to intervene: her physician, your pastor, or someone else whose opinion he respects, even a family therapist if his dismissal of her feelings is across much of the board.

Edited to add: In light of your husband's difficult childhood, he may be overly focused on bringing joy to your daughter's life, something he himself missed out on. It doesn't change anything in the answer, but I would add an explanation to your husband that joy can be experienced in ways not expressed by laughter, and laughter does not always mean joy (see tickling.) He's not failing to bring joy by failing to make her laugh. Respecting her feelings and making home a safe haven for her may bring her a serenity/happiness he also missed out on as a child. Ask him to picture how he would have felt if his parents cared about/were attentive to/respected his feelings as a child. That might be helpful. (Joy elicits a feel-good reaction in your husband because he can see it and he is rewarded as well for it. Happiness/serenity isn't as visible, and doesn't bring on the same experience, but is just as important for her well-being.)

Have you ever asked him exactly how she should go about "getting over it"? What are the steps she should take? If he can't come up with a better plan than "she just should", seeing how this is not a reasonable expectation may be helpful.

*When I was a child, my father used to tickle us mercilessly, ignoring our cries to cry to stop until the laughter turned to sobbing, at which point he would get angry and walk away while muttering criticisms at the tearful victim. It was awful, and I hated it. He disregarded our feelings in many many ways, and I had a very tenuous relationship with him as an adult. What I didn't realize until decades later was that my father lacked empathy to a degree which was pathological. He just didn't understand on a deep emotional level that what he thought/felt/believed wasn't what everybody thought/felt/believed (or should have done so.)

6 Ways Childhood Abuse and Neglect Leads to Self-Blame in Adulthood

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    My husband had an extremely difficult home life, absent parents, and was expected to grow up very quickly. He was abused by his mother and his upbringing was very harsh. While these things aren't an excuse for his behaviour, it does explain why parenting and interacting with children doesn't come naturally to him. He is a wonderful, gentle man who has grown a lot in the 5 years since our daughter was born. Fortunately, things like this are few and far between for us, and on the other times I have called him out on things, he has listened.
    – anon
    Sep 27, 2023 at 16:53
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    I am doing my best to mediate on her behalf, and will stand up for her. I've been encouraging him to get professional counselling, but it's difficult. I appreciate your insight.
    – anon
    Sep 27, 2023 at 16:54
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    Thanks for the comment; it explains a lot. I'm sure you let your husband know that when he's doing a good job parenting, he's a very good father, especially in light of the fact that he had no good role models growing up. It's hard coming up with an entirely different approach than that in which he was raised. He deserves a lot of credit for wanting to do it differently. Sep 28, 2023 at 15:16
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Your Husband Needs to Respect a 'No'

I am not dissimilar to your husband in that I like to play with my kids in a manner that they often enjoy and also sometimes find annoying.

One of the ways I entertain myself when I'm asked to read the same story for the millionth time at bed is to use a very wide variety of funny accents for the characters. Often, my kids either love this or don't say anything. On occasion, though, my daughter (6) will ask me, "Daddy, can you please not use a silly voice for this."

Often I will try and ask if there's a reason she doesn't want me to and often the response is, "I just don't want a silly voice right now."

And if that's the case, then I will respect that.

There is a balance to this, though. We often do stories before bed in the living room's reading chair. And my son (4) loves to hear silly voices. So if we're doing his story, there's going to be silly voices and my daughter's 'no' will not apply. She's not being forced to stay and listen to her brother's story, but she can't tell me or her brother that she doesn't want a silly voice when the activity is specifically for her brother (I mean she can, but it's not going to be honored).

This secondary dynamic with another sibling isn't applicable for your situation, but I included it for the sake of explaining to your daughter that not everything is going to be specifically for her.


And he needs to apologize

Something that struck me as concerning was when you said:

She'll be fine, and then he'll terrorise her and go away somewhere else and I need to pick up the pieces. Now he's angry at me because I got really upset with him and told him to stop.

Simply put, this isn't fair to you. I don't know enough about the relationship to suggest that he's trying to make her really angry on purpose, but the notion that he's leaving you to deal with the emotional fallout doesn't seem ok to me.

In the example above, I've sometimes pushed it too far when asking my daughter to explain why I can't do a silly voice and caused her to be very upset. There's a ton of reasons and excuses I might deploy that are valid (i.e. she needs to learn to express her feelings, she needs to learn to compromise when asking for something, she needs to whatever). But what's also valid is I need to learn to accept that sometimes she's just not in the mood for it, which is fine.

Over time, I've gotten a lot better at respecting her 'no' and also apologizing when I fail to do so. It strikes me as concerning that your husband isn't apologizing to your daughter when he upsets her. Again, I can see how it can happen by accident if there are times when your daughter enjoys the roaring lion, but she needs to see that the appropriate response when you upset someone by accident is to apologize to them*. The apology is what's going to make it so that your daughter isn't just talking about her feelings with you, but also with him and I think that's an extremely important job for all fathers to engage in.

*We take apologies very seriously in our house. They always have to be more than the words, "I'm sorry," because doing that too often cheapens the words. The only real exception to that is something that's obvious and minor (e.g. somebody bumping into someone else by accident). Most of the time we say that an apology has to include the words, 'I'm sorry,', the name of the person you're apologizing to, and what you're apologizing for. So for the example in your question it'd probably be, "I'm sorry, <daughter's name>, I didn't mean to upset you with the scary lion."

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    Thanks for your insight as a dad who also likes to be funny/ play and sometimes annoy his kids. After reading back my post I realized something similar; that it was unfair for me to pick up the pieces. I know for sure he isn't doing it on purpose, i think i may just need to discuss with him that I'm not going to be fixing it if he upsets her, and he needs to sort that out.
    – anon
    Sep 27, 2023 at 17:33
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The way I understand it is that the dad in question likely has some issues with his self confidence and wants to be a good dad but doesn't have the ability to stop himself once things get in a wrong direction.

It's right that you should stop him as quickly as possible when he shows this behavior, but I would advise to be also as gentle as possible while doing so. There aren't many things as embarrassing as noticing to have failed at being a proper parent, and if Im right he just uses the easiest escape route by blaming your daughter.

The best solution to this would be in my opinion to show him he needs to improve at being a dad by sorting out his own issues with his childhood and/or self-confidence and supporting him as much as possible along the way.

If the situation doesn't improve the result might well be a very difficult relation to his own daughter in the future and he should be able to see that this is nothing he should create even by accident.

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    Yeah, I think I exacerbated the issue by making a big deal/getting upset about it. I could have handled it better. I was stressed out for other reasons and took it out on him. We had a chat about it afterwards and both apologised.
    – anon
    Sep 28, 2023 at 11:48
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Sometimes she's okay with this and has fun, and other times it makes her very upset.

Your child is normal and is exhibiting an acceptable response.


Now he's angry at me because I got really upset with him and told him to stop. He's discouraged because he can't play with her the way he wants to.

He's actively making two people's lives miserable. You're allowed to have emotions too. I don't think you've done anything egregious; his coping skills need a swift kick in the butt.

You should carve out a plan to talk to him during alone time such as during school or drop her off to a parent/friends house for a few hours. You need to give him a chance to internalize, reflect, and give enough space to not make him defensive.

If you wish to go the "extra mile" then consider coming up with a list of like-able actions. Advocating for positive actions can be more effective than reacting/punishing negative actions.

Better yet, focus on how your daughter is feeling and wait for him to connect the dots from his actions to her feelings. Advocate the achievement of positive or even neutral feelings.


On more than one occasion I've played with my 4/5 year-old kids in a way they enjoyed one day and not the following day. I respect their decision to dislike something and do try to abstain from it in the future.

My husband had an extremely difficult home life.

As did I. It doesn't excuse me from ignoring social cues from my children.

His boundaries weren't respected as a child so he is having a hard time figuring out where that thin grey line rests in the proverbial sand.

Jokes, antics, and an intense desire to be liked within a smaller circle (family) are extremely common defensive responses to such an upbringing.

If there is a brain-imbalance with your husband then that is extremely far outside the scope of anything https://parenting.stackexchange.com/ can assist with.

I wish you the best.

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I personally don't think professional counselling is necessary, but it should be an option to consider. What is necessary is that he sits down and thinks about the following facts:

  1. Not everything he finds fun is enjoyable for other people, and his child is also a person.
  2. Both physical and emotional security is crucial for bringing up a child.

In comments you said that parenting and interacting with children doesn't come naturally to your husband, and yet he is "a wonderful, gentle man who has grown a lot in the 5 years" since your daughter was born. Given this, it is very much worth it to talk to him about this, being both clear about the issues above and at the same time being supportive of him.

To expand on anongoodnurse's recommendation, it might be a good idea to:

  1. Emphasize that you know and greatly appreciate your husband doing a good job parenting.
  2. Emphasize that you do not blame him for mistakes, but simply would like to help you both become better at taking care of your child together.
  3. Encourage him to apologize for mistakes, explaining to him that it is not only what his daughter deserves but also that it will let his daughter see that he loves her a lot.
  4. Actively discuss alternatives to the things that your daughter does not enjoy. The point is to not just say "Do not do X because it hurts her." but to say "X hurts her, so how about changing it to Y?" For example, Y could be "pretending to be a cute puppy/kitten instead of a lion" or "hugging her". Obviously, you will have to observe which of these your daughter likes, but the point is to come up with many ideas so that you can find the best ones.

I want to elaborate on the last point, as I think it is missing from other answers. Many times, good people have bad behaviour not because they like it but because they simply don't know better options. To help them out, it is best to provide them with many possible options. If for every thing you say "no" to, you also give two other things you say "yes" to, it makes it much easier to improve and also much more pleasant in the journey.

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It seems like your husband wants to connect with your daughter by playing. But sometimes doesn't listen or pick up on cues when he goes too far.

You're right to stand up for her when she says she doesn't like the playing. Maybe suggest he ask first before the lion game, so she can say yes or no. That shows respect for her feelings.

Most important is that your husband needs to recognize your daughter's feelings first. He should not play in ways that upset her on purpose. No parent should do that.

I understand your husband feels discouraged he can't play how he wants. But her feelings come first. With more talk, they can find play that makes them both happy. Don't take it personally. She's only 5 and learning to say what she wants. You both need to guide her patiently.

You relate more to your daughter, he likes playing more. You both matter. Work together to help them understand each other. The goal is communication that connects them.

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Your comments in the responses mention that he had a rough upbringing. A lot of what you say about him reminds me of me, both in terms of behavior and upbringing. Whatever the reason may be, I have social inadequacies. If I’m at a party or larger social group, I can have anxiety and constant thoughts of if I’m being socially appropriate, am I reciprocating properly, am I staying within people’s boundaries. What comes naturally to others in terms of social cues, I have to actively think about and execute.

Given this background, his behavior sounds similar. I’ve actually upset my wife a few times as I took playful behaviors too far or didn’t properly read that they weren’t playful to her. It’s not that my intent is to upset, or ignore social boundaries, it’s that I honestly can’t always tell.

With that said, his excuse and making the interaction primarily about him isn’t a good response. Social interactions with anyone is inherently a shared experience. So pushing that off and shifting the blame to others isn’t appropriate. As others mentioned, this may just be a knee jerk reaction. This might be the response to embarrassment, and then out of embarrassment a need to prove it is actually fine, even if that reasoning is flawed.

Granted, this could just be me projecting my perspective onto him, haha, so take my armchair psychology with a grain of salt.

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