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The Competent Parent: Desperate Tween




Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Dear Dr. Debbie,


I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction such as a book, appropriate professional help, or offer any advice on an issue with my boyfriend’s daughter. She is 11, has visitation with her dad every 2 weeks at MY house where I allow him to live. Her mother has a history of emotional problems, and drug and alcohol abuse. Last visitation, the daughter, who is usually very sweet and a cool kid, threatened her father to get herself hit by a car unless he immediately took her to the mall for some earrings she had seen. She physically stood in the middle of the street screaming, “Let’s go NOW, Dad!” We have told her many times not to go near the street, as it is a high-speed street and very dangerous. I am very concerned and do not know if I am overreacting. I think she has learned this kind of thing from her mother, which scares us both, but I cannot have people in my house who threaten suicide if they don’t get their way. He’s a good dad, but sometimes it seems he does not know what to do or say. We only get the kids every other weekend so we can’t really “ground” her. And unfortunately the mom and dad cannot communicate or agree on anything. The divorce has not been that long ago.

Could you please advise where to get some help or information so we can figure out how to handle this?

We plan to sit her down this weekend and have a talk, and then have her write out exactly what happened from her perspective, and why it was wrong; then discuss what she said and then give her some feedback. We’re also thinking she needs counseling, but don’t want to make that feel like a punishment. Her dad is saying he is going to also let his daughter read your advice column so that she sees it is a professional opinion and not something he has made up.

In the Middle of It

Dear In the Middle of It,

The girl needs a talking WITH, not a talking TO. You need to listen to her feelings, not tell her she is wrong. The importance of the earrings – or what this need represents to her – was lost somewhere. (Your concern for safety could not be heard by her – because she was so stressed -the same as her feelings about the earrings were not heard by you.) Talking WITH is done calmly, and is not a punishment because it helps her to be heard.

It’s normal for this age (with erratic spurts of hormones) to fly into a tizzy. It is normal for kids with noncommunicating parents to feel stressed as they split their lives between them. It is normal to call attention to yourself and demand control when a parent starts a live-in relationship with a non-parent. And, very likely, she is probably a combination of imitating/reacting to/genetically disposed to the emotional instability of her mother – maybe for the first time as her brain shifts gears toward adolescence.

She needs counseling. And dad should go with her for some sessions to have some assistance in having her share her needs and feelings with him. You and dad could also benefit from a couple of sessions with a counselor so you are sure to be on the same page as to your roles. Step-parenting, as you are finding, is very tricky. Dad might want to look for books such as: The Single Father: a dad’s guide to parenting without a partner by Armin Brott, And you’ll identify with The Smart Stepmom by Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge. There is so much going on for this girl – including the start of adolescence, that there’s no quick and easy answer. One book for both of you on this subject is Get out if my life, but first can you drive me and Cheryl to the mall? by Anthony Wolff, Ph.D.   Even though the subtitle is “A parent’s guide to the new teenager” it addresses the complex stage of tearing away from, but clinging desperately to a parent’s values and protection. For children of divorce, some stages are rushed (as the single parent comes to depend on her to do more for herself), and some stages are delayed (her sense of security is shaken when her basic family unit is splintered). The earrings may have represented a critical acquisition to help her meet a fashion standard of her peer group. Or fear that her father (or you, or her absent and sometimes unavailable mother) would not care enough about her to keep her safe.

And on this note, I would caution against having her read the column. There is such a thing as too much information for an eleven-year-old to handle. She should be told, “We’re getting some help for all of us. Here’s what we’re going to do.” She’s still a passenger on the flight of childhood. One of the scariest things a child can experience is to feel that her grown-ups (pilot, navigator, flight control, weather reporter, reservations manager, etc., etc., etc,) are not equipped for the job.

Prepare for some turbulence for this leg of the journey.

Dr. Debbie


Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com


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