Our new weekly advice column, in which practising psychotherapist Ms. X answers readers’ questions on manners, morals and mental health.
Dear Ms. X,
I am a divorced dad of three. The split was about five years ago now and I thought we had worked out a reasonable co-parenting arrangement. But now my ex has a new partner and they are engaged. I am absolutely fine with her moving on with someone new but he is being a dick. He has asked that our kids not call me Dad because it upsets him.
I understand he is insecure (not my fault) and I understand via my ex that he didn’t have a terrific childhood (again not my fault) but now he is living in a house with my kids and being a… dick about them calling me Dad. I have told the kids to call me what they want and the two oldest are fine and just ignore this request of his. The little one is 11 and confused – she wants to please him.
I don’t think I can ask my ex to sort this out because she isn’t the most emotionally evolved person and I am just worried for the littlest one. Any ideas?
Well, this is challenging. As therapists we are meant to go forth into the world with our compassion at the ready but mine dried up somewhat upon reading this. When I imagined being in your position I communed with my inner Tony Soprano, rather than my inner Buddhist monk. So I asked a colleague to have a read, curious to see what he said.
And he said the same thing: what a dick. A giant man-baby dick.
So, that is two trained professionals who think you are demonstrating a masterful control over your inner thug. Well done.
This is actually the second time I have heard of a step parent making this request of children and it made me spontaneously combust that time too.
When you have any kind of parent role – biological/step/foster/whatever – it means you instantly need to grow up, especially if you don’t have the excuse of still being a teenager yourself. As a parent, you are the adult and you need to remember that. The kids get to be kids, not you.
Obviously this guy – lets just call him Dick because it will make both of us feel better – hasn’t grown up. Worse, your family has been burdened with his personal baggage, and let’s just say it’s not exactly carry-on sized.
So I am trying to think what practical solutions I can offer you here. It sounds like the oldest two kids have a strong relationship with you and probably have some of that glorious teen narcissism where they can just roll their eyes and mutter “nah I don’t think so, Dick” and carry on.
If Dick leaves it at that and doesn’t nag or make more of it, then fine. Teenage eye roll wins again.
But the youngest is trying, bless her, to be a junior officer of the UN and make everyone happy: not just Dick, but you – and Mum too, probably. That’s a lot to juggle and it’s not her job.
I wonder if there is a conversation you can have with your ex. You say you don’t think she would meet this head-on and call him out but I wonder if you could at least do some seed planting, suggesting Dick’s dad request might be unfair on your youngest. You will know what the lay of the land is here and how strong her powers of denial can be. If it’s a no-go, is there a wider circle into which you can throw a pebble? Her parents? Aunts? Friends who might be rightly bloody horrified by this?
Meanwhile, talk to your daughter. Say “I am your dad and I think it might be hard for you when Dick asks you not to call me Dad,” and just see what she says. Give her the room to explain how the situation makes her feel so you can see how serious this is. Take the temperature.
I suspect that if you keep demonstrating that you ARE her dad, the name stuff won’t affect that bond, no matter what accommodations she feels she has to make with Dick. Just the act of you being steady (as you seem to be) may provide her with enough ballast to steer through this and not take on too much responsibility for managing the situation.
And it wouldn’t hurt to have the older two quietly aware of this conversation so that they can be a team with your youngest.
If it gets anymore serious, you could look at instigating mediation through the family courts system. That will take a bit of time and some patience, but you should know there are formal options open to you in dealing with this Dick.
Best of luck caller.
Extra! A couple of columns ago I offered some advice about anxiety and how to consult with a naturopath to get St Johns Wort. In doing so, I may have insinuated that any other services from a naturopath were a crock. And consequently my own naturopath may have tried to shiv me with one of her healing crystals.
Readers, I know some of these other potions work for some people; some of them have even worked for me. But I try to avoid recommending remedies that haven’t had a write-up in The Lancet or what I consider a decent peer review. So that is my highly conditional explanation – and apology to the herb pusher in my life.
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