Dear Captain Awkward,
This is our family:
- My partner, divorced & single dad for 7 years.
- His daughter, 9 years old, who sees her mother only on the weekends.
- My son, 7 years old, whose father lives on the other side of the planet (we’re fine with that!).
- Then there’s our baby, two months old.
- Well, and me, the trying-not-to-be-evil stepmother. So you see, there’s a lot of potential for drama.
I truly love my stepdaughter, and she likes me, too, and often confides in me or asks me for guidance or comfort. But most of the time, handling her is really exhausting. The divorce of her parents was a dirty mess and even now, their relationship is problematic at best but mostly an absolute disaster. So the girl bears the brunt of it and naturally, acts out since she knows no other way of coping. She shows early signs of self-harm (scratching, aggression, self-endangering behaviour) and gets sick a lot (psychosomatic illnesses).
I try to be supportive and sensible, because I know a lot about divorces and self-harming and being a scared little girl with no-one to turn to… been there, done that. But I don’t want my other children to get the short end of the stick. She needs 100% of my attention and I can’t do that.
Well, hello therapy!
But I have absolutely no idea how to convince my partner. He is the best father he can be. He loves his daughter more than anything. He raised her alone, without any help or guidance, and did exceptionally well. However, he is blind when it comes to her nuanced emotional states. He had a childhood full of abuse & neglect and thus has low minimum requirements of parenting. He thinks warm food, clean clothes, hugs & no beatings to be sufficient. He is very proud of his accomplishments as a single dad, so criticizing him means denying his sacrifices and suffering, know what I mean? Even with small advice, I need a week to convince him of my good intention. He is not pigheaded, just insecure with a strong need for approval & praise.
So how do I tell my partner his daughter needs therapy? Or better yet, how do I show him? Before the situation escalates?
Thanks for your advice,
You describe your partner’s kneejerk “If my daughter needed therapy, that would mean I am not a good parent” fallacy really, really well. I’m absolutely with you that the poor kid could definitely use the help of a trained adult and a safe space to process her feelings and develop some different strategies for coping.
I am really counting on the blog’s readers to help us out with insights and maybe stories of personal experience here. I am not a parent, and the prospect of trying to wade into someone else’s parenting is fraught with peril.
Here’s what I suggest:
- Document your stepdaughter’s moods and behaviors over the course of a month. When does she self-harm or act aggressively? Are there specific triggers or patterns? This will help you base whatever conversation you end up having on observed behavior and specifics rather than hunches.
- What’s going on at school? Is she getting in trouble and raising the concerns of teachers and administrators? If so, as sad and worrying as it is, this helps your case. You can counteract any “Strangers don’t need to know our family’s business” arguments from your partner. Cat’s already out of the bag, so why not let the strangers help set her up with the school’s counselor or recommend resources?
- Bring it up with the family doctor at her next exam. ”We’re noticing these kinds of behaviors. What do you think about that?”
- What positive experiences do you have with therapy that you could share with him?
- The script goes something like this: ”You know I think you are the world’s greatest dad, and I have nothing but respect for you. You also know that I love Stepdaughter dearly. In light of some of the incidents we’ve been having lately (list incidents), I want us to take her to see a therapist. I think she could benefit from having a neutral, safe space to work through her feelings and a trained person to help her develop some different ways of expressing them.“
- Then you listen for a while. Give him a chance to surprise you! If he argues, you can have some counterarguments ready to go, but it’s important that you really hear him out and don’t just spend that time waiting for your turn to talk. If he feels disrespected or condescended to, you’re sunk.
That said, let’s prepare some counterarguments to the most likely objections and fears:
- “I don’t want my daughter to have to tell some stranger her feelings/She should just be able to talk to me!” She IS communicating her feelings, actually. By scratching people and harming herself. When my cat pees outside her box, that’s a message that says “take me to the vet, now!” Not that I’ve read the textbook, but this sounds like it came from the textbook: ”Kid is angry and upset about the divorce, but also loves her dad and doesn’t want to say ‘I’m angry at you for ruining my life with the divorce,’ possibly detonating a parental guiltbomb. But she can’t hold it in so it comes out in other ways.” A therapist can help her learn to use her words to speak up about her feelings.
- “I had a shitty childhood and look how I turned out! She doesn’t need therapy!” Maybe she doesn’t NEED therapy, but if she could possibly benefit from some, why not try? What’s the worst that could happen? Why not give the kid every chance? Maybe your partner deserved to have his parents look out for him by getting him therapy. Maybe this isn’t a referendum on his childhood.
- “Who’s gonna pay for this/We don’t have the money/How do we even find a therapist?” Start with the school – they’ll know someone. Your child’s pediatrician can make some recommendations. This list might help you. Why not investigate it and see what you actually find instead of worrying about money right away?
- The “secret” fear that will probably remain unspoken: ”I don’t want people judging our family!/If we get therapy for her, we’re admitting things are not perfect.” Divorce is traumatic for everyone, and this one sounds especially sucky. You guys aren’t the first people to ever get divorced and remarried and have your kids go through some bad times. Your problems won’t be anything a therapist hasn’t seen before! I would try to get this one out in the open by asking “You seem really resistant to this – what aren’t you telling me? What are you so afraid of?“
Some good messages to convey:
- Needing therapy doesn’t mean you’re “crazy” and “crazy” doesn’t mean “bad.”
- Kids are separate people from their parents. They don’t cope the same way the parent would or did in the same situation, and they don’t all cope the same way as each other.
- Coping skills, resilience, emotional intelligence, self-care can be learned. This isn’t “fixing” a “broken” kid, it’s teaching a kid to deal with her own emotional health.
- It’s not a referendum on his parenting abilities. It’s not a referendum on his parenting abilities. ”The kid needs therapy = I am fucking it up as a parent” is a false equivalency. Poke a hole in that balloon any way you can.
It will probably take some time and more than one conversation to get there, and only you know how often to bring it up without sending your partner into meltdown. If he rejects the idea the first time you bring it up, keep documenting the behavior and communicating with the school.