Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single dad with a 9-year-old daughter who’s with me half the time. Before the divorce, she was a sweet kid and a pleasure to be around. But lately she’s become a terror, throwing tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wants — and I think it’s because her mother is spoiling her. How do I deal with her? And what can I say to her mom to get this behavior to stop?
A: As you well know, divorce is tough on everyone involved: you, your ex, and your daughter. And among the many problems divorce creates, one of the most common is children being spoiled by “the other” parent. Typically, the one doing the spoiling is the non-custodial parent who’s making a well-intentioned attempt to buy the kids’ affection or to do something to make up for how hard the divorce has been on them. But the same thing can happen in cases like yours, where both parents have the kids the same amount of time. Here’s what to do:
When your daughter says something like, “But Mommy lets me do that!” it’s awfully tempting to respond with a snide comment about your ex. However, as much as you may want to vent your anger, it’s important to restrain yourself from criticizing your ex in front of your daughter. The best you can do right now is remind her that in Mom’s house, Mom sets the rules. In your house, you do. End of discussion.
TALK WITH MOM
Set up a time to talk with your ex about what’s going on. Sooner rather than later. Again, you may be angry and tempted to lash out or start slinging accusations and criticisms. Don’t. Any discussion that starts that way is doomed. Make sure you’re calm when you make the call or meet in person, and make sure the conversation itself stays as low-key and low-volume as possible. Focus on your daughter’s behavior. Ask whether your ex is seeing the same things at her house. If so, you’re instant allies. If not, ask for her support in helping your daughter understand the different-houses-different-rules thing.
MAYBE IT’S NOT MOM AFTER ALL
Just because your daughter says that her mom lets her get away with something or that she buys her cool stuff doesn’t mean that’s what’s actually happening. In ordinary circumstances, children are quite adept at playing mom and dad off each other. But children in divorced families are absolute masters. You also need to consider that although she’s only 9, your daughter is quickly lurching towards the teen years and her ornery behavior may be a preview of coming attractions. It’s also possible that your daughter is angry and trying to punish you for what she sees as you having ruined her life. Hey, no one said this was going to be easy.
DON’T GIVE UP — OR IN
Regardless of whether your daughter is lying through her braces or telling the truth about what goes on at Mom’s house, don’t give in. Instead of trying to sooth her with cash, gifts, or expensive treats, offer something a lot more valuable: time. Take her to the park, to a movie, to an arcade, or read bedtime stories to each other — things that truly matter. At the end of the day, the parent who tries to buy a child’s love by spending money always loses, while the one who spends quality time wins. But it’s not about winning and losing, anyway. It’s about raising your daughter to be a responsible, healthy, emotionally stable adult. Right?