Ask Mabel: How do I help my distressed teen post-divorce?
I have been struggling with some issues my children are having and was wondering if you had any ideas. I got divorced 11 years ago after my ex-wife was derailed. After much struggle, I did finally get full custody of our two children, with visitation rights granted to their mother. The children have continued to be with me ever since.
Several years after the divorce, we found out that my ex was selling the property that should belong to my children and thus began a lawsuit. During the legal process, we found out that my ex and her husband had abused the children. The court ruled that she could no longer bring the children back to her house and could only meet outside a few hours a week. Shortly after, their mother decided to forfeit her right to visit.
Since their mother has stopped visiting, my youngest daughter who is now a teenager has become more withdrawn. She doesn’t say much to her sister and me, is very impatient and shows resistance. I don’t understand why. She does play games and laugh with friends and has good grades in school so I don’t put a lot of pressure on her. After all, I feel like personal safety is the most important and she is now safe.
Lately, I have been thinking about how they were in the years after the divorce. There was one time when she was about eight years old that I went to pick her up from her mother’s house. She was very timid at this time, cared a lot for others, but was also afraid and confused and would take my hand anywhere we went. I have tried for a while to understand why she might be like this. I think her character is very delicate, and these family incidences have really hurt her.
Now she is shutting down. She is pretending she no longer cares and refuses to communicate with us about her pain and frustrations. I have talked to her sister about it and she agrees that she is in a lot of pain. I want to help but I don’t know what to do. What do you think — (1) Should I go to their mother and ask for her to resume visits? (2) Is this just part of adolescence?
Thank you for your help.
Mike from Wyoming
Hi Mike, This sounds like a tough situation. I am glad you are reaching out for help. Your daughter may or may not be going through pain from her mother’s abandonment. Only by talking to her, then you would know. I’m wondering if you and your daughter have any one-on-one time together to foster a father-daughter relationship. If not, it may be a good time to start. She probably won’t immediately open her heart to you. It takes a few tries. Be consistent. Talk about fun stuff first to build trust and relationship.
I wouldn’t recommend forcing visitation from the mother. The mother is an adult. If she wants to visit, she has her own free will to initiate contact. If a parent doesn’t want visitation, she may treat the children negatively. She might not want to be involved and in turn may resent the child.
Moreover, because there is a history of abuse, we don’t know whether the children want contact with their mother. The children are older now, they have a mind of their own about how they feel towards each parent. If the mother initiates contact, ask the children first to see what they want to do. Don’t force the process on the kids. Your daughter may have mixed feelings about seeing her mother. Keep the conversation open-ended and avoid saying “it would be better if you see your mom.”
Also, I would consider getting your daughter help from a licensed counselor. She could greatly benefit from having someone outside the family to talk to who might be able to help her sort through things and develop healthy coping mechanisms.