How Can I Help Our Daughter When Her Mother Is Emotionally Unstable?

 

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 132 · Duration: 00:14:04

How Can I Help Our Daughter When Her Mother Is Emotionally Unstable?

How Can I Help Our Daughter When Her Mother Is Emotionally UnstableWhat does a Dad do to help his daughter, when he shares custody with an emotionally unstable ex?

And if you have a question you’d like me to address on this podcast, don’t be shy, we’ll all benefit from your question so come on over to my website, neildbrown.com click on either For Families or For Treatment Programs, then click on any podcast and scroll down to the end where it says “submit your question” and enter it there and why not do it today.And while you’re there, download a free copy of my Parental Burnout Recovery Guide.

Today we’re hearing from Michael. Michael writes:

I’m divorced and my ex wife and I share custody of our 8 year-old daughter.It was a difficult divorce with my ex making many accusations against me.But things have settled down and the court has realized that my ex is not a stable individual and that her accusations are baseless.If I told you stories about her behavior you might not believe me.Anything can upset her and when she goes off, she’s out of control.

My daughter realizes that her mother has emotional issues.If we’re watching a movie, she might see a crazy character and say, “That’s like Mom”.Or she might see an advertisement for a calming product and say, “We should get that for Mom.”

I have two questions:

What will the impact of having an emotionally unstable mother have on our daughter?

How should I respond to her comments without turning her against her mother or revealing my own feelings towards her?

Thanks for your question Michael. It’s a situation I need to address commonly so let’s take a look.

How Having a Parent Who is Emotionally Unstable will Affect Teen Development

First of all, I appreciate that you want to avoid putting your feelings and experiences on your daughter. That’s often difficult and yet so important for your daughter. Our kids have their own burdens and they don’t need ours as well. As you describe it, you had false accusations made against you and have had to fight for custody and your parental rights, so it ain’t easy to separate out your feelings after going through all that and then be civil and gracious in your communication. But cheers to you for aspiring to that.No one does it perfectly, but you’re doing the right thing by your daughter.I’d add that you’re doing the right thing for yourself as well.

When we hold on to anger and seek retribution in these situations, it keeps us stuck in the past when what we need to do is engage the present and move towards our future. Click To Tweet

When we hold on to anger and seek retribution in these situations, it keeps us stuck in the past when what we need to do is engage the present and move towards our future.And that means dealing with challenges of all kinds with objectivity, intelligence, and skill.You’re daughter’s mother will be one of those challenges for the foreseeable future so you’ll need a strategy that will minimize drama and get to the best outcomes as efficiently as possible. 

Your daughter is at the age where she can begin to see and evaluate what’s appropriate and reasonable and what isn’t and now she’s starting to wonder about what to do about it. Can she fix it? Can you fix it? 

Of course she can’t and neither can you, but there are ways to maximize health for your daughter, her mother and for you. Even after divorce the three of you are still a family, a divorced family, but a family all the same. So one question you can ask yourself when facing any situation is: How shall I address this in a way that is healthiest for the family? You might not want to think of it as your family Michael, but your daughter her mother and you are your daughter’s family and you want what’s best for your daughter’s family.

Let’s look at your first question. What impact will having an emotionally unstable mother, have on your daughter? There is of course no way to know exactly because there are so many variables involved including, how emotionally unstable her mother is, what’s your daughter’s temperament is like. Is she sensitive and reactive, or more on the easy going side?

Are there positive elements in her relationship with her Mom? 

Is her school experience positive and supportive? Is there a positive social context for her such as sports clubs, extended family on either or both sides? Are the differences of opinion between her mother and you, kept away from her? For instance if you want to take her on a vacation and her mother isn’t agreeing to it, does she know that and is she put in the middle, or is it kept between you and her Mom?

So the bottom line is that having a parent who is emotionally unstable will affect child and teen development. As an ex husband, you can’t fix that so it will be your daughter’s dilemma do deal with. Your challenge is how to provide the support and validation your daughter needs to manage it as she grows up. 

Kids who grow up in a divorced family where the hostility between parents is palpable, do predictably poorly. Kids who grow up with support and validation and a minimum of hostility, do much better.Click To Tweet

Kids who grow up in a divorced family where the hostility between parents is palpable, do predictably poorly. Kids who grow up with support and validation and a minimum of hostility, do much better. The fact of your daughter having a Dad who is active in her life, and is emotionally validating and supportive, will go a long way to helping her be resilient and able to grow and thrive.

Meeting Your Teen's Emotional Needs

Now for your second question. How should I respond to her comments without turning her against her mother or revealing my own feelings towards her?

Another very important question. We know it’s wrong to put a child or teenager in the middle, but equally important is that if we respond to our children’s feelings and problems with our own thoughts and feelings, we’ll miss the opportunity to acknowledge theirs. And that is such an important thing for kids. When we listen, take in, and respond with interest and empathy, we are telling our youth that their thoughts and feelings matter; that they, as people matter.We are meeting their emotional needs and when kids get their emotional needs met they feel known, accepted, and acceptable.

They’ll be better at solving problems, establishing healthy boundaries, and making better choices.Youth who are emotionally supported and get their emotional needs met are overall more resilient in the face of adversity and have better mental health.

So Michael, let’s say your daughter says, “Mom was talking to Grandma on the phone last night and boy, did she get angry.”

Rather than say, “Yea, those two really set each other off.They’re two peas in a pod.”

You might ask, “What was that like for you?”

Then you might hear, “It was really scary when she kicked the chair over.”

Dad-“Wow, that does sound scary, what did you do then.” 

Daughter-“I ran to my room and got under my covers.”

Dad-“That was smart, what happened then.”

Daughter-“I just read my books and then Mom came in.She got mad because I didn’t brush my teeth or get in my PJ’s.I didn’t want to say it was because I was scared so I just brushed and got in my pj’s and went to bed.”

Dad-“I’m sorry that you had to deal with that, but you did a good job dealing with it.How are you feeling about it now?” 

Daughter-“Kind of mad.I don’t like it when Mom gets like that.” 

Dad-“Yes, that really is upsetting.What do you think you should do about it now?”

Daughter-“I don’t know.If I talk to Mom about it she’ll just say it’s Grandma’s fault.” 

Dad-“I see your point.But if you tell Mom your feelings, at least you’ll be saying them and then Mom can know how you feel.She can know how these things affect you.”

Daughter-“Maybe I’ll try.”

Dad-“Thanks for sharing your feelings with me.I like knowing your feelings, the good ones and the bad ones.” 

Get the idea Michael?

If you’re wondering if you should take any action on it beyond hearing her feelings in a situation like that, that’s a judgment call where you don’t want to talk to her mother and have her mother get mad at your daughter for, “telling on her.” 

You could ask her if she’d like you to talk with her mother about it or if she would be okay with you talking to her Mom about the incident.That way she won’t feel betrayed if her Mom gets upset with her.

In Conclusion

Whether you are a divorced family or an intact family, if you are the emotionally healthier parent while the other parent is commonly emotionally unstable, you can keep a couple of principles in mind: 

  • Do your best to stay in partnership with the other parent.
  • Listen and empathize with your child or teen’s feelings.
  • Have a place for yourself to get your own support and validation. That will lessen the temptation to express those feelings to your child.
  • If you are concerned about your child or teenager’s ability to develop well with an emotionally unstable parent, find a therapist they can see for a while, and then they can return to therapy as things come up or as needed.It would be good for them to establish a therapeutic relationship before adolescence so that healthy support and guidance is there for them during those predictably challenging years.

Thanks for tuning in today everyone and special thanks to you Michael for your very important questions.

If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program, and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website neildbrown.com and shoot me an email or give me a call.I’ll be happy to talk with you.

And please, especially during the stress of the holiday season, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.


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