I feel like my daughter’s ‘real life’ is at my ex’s house

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

My ex-husband and I divorced when our daughter was 3. I went on to get remarried to a man who had two children from a previous marriage. We then had two kids of our own. My ex-husband is remarried but they don’t have any kids. Overall, we co-parent really well and we have equal time with our daughter.

I am happy with this arrangement, but it’s becoming more obvious my daughter is not. She is 13. Her step-siblings are 11 and 9 and her sisters are 3 and 6 months. Despite our best efforts to blend our families, for some reason she just does not click with the other kids. She isn’t mean to them and wouldn’t bully them or anything like that, but she doesn’t really interact with them much beyond family group stuff. When she is with my ex-husband, she is able to spend more time with friends because his house is closer to them and they have a far more flexible schedule. My ex is also able to buy her some very nice things.

Besides that, she just seems happier without a lot of people and the chaos in our house. On the weekends she is here, I often go looking for her and find her reading by herself in her room while her siblings all play elsewhere. She would never say this, but I think she just doesn’t like being at our house. I feel like she is visiting here and her “real life” is at my ex’s. I want her to be a part of things here, not a visitor. How can we blend our families more successfully?

— Visited

She could be in a non-blended family of five children (or two or 12) and still prefer to read in her room while her siblings play elsewhere. Certainly at age 13, where the urge to tell one’s family to go away is strong, and especially when three of the four of the siblings, if not all four, are on a completely different developmental planet.

I don’t think there’s anything terrible about a kid this age being somewhat disengaged at home. We don’t learn to be resourceful when we get everything we want as we want it when we want it. Her needs are for a quieter environment than your home provides, so she has found a way to meet them. Good for her.

The only thing I would suggest is the basic raising-a-teenager survival pack: Be unobtrusive but watchful; find ways to spend time with her one-on-one (yes, I’m hilarious) that meet her where she is vs. where you want her to be; and keep an open mind about the best way to give her what she needs.

It may be that it serves her better to tilt her schedule more toward being at her dad’s, especially given the proximity to friends … but also don’t assume reading in her room equates to unhappiness. She could also appreciate a place to hide from her social life and recharge a bit, which she can then “blame” on you and her dad and your custody arrangement, win-win.

Like I said: watchful. Her feeling emotionally safe is the best encouragement for her to “blend” wherever she is.

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