Care and Feeding

I Think I Know the Cause of My Daughter’s Strange Behavior

She’s experiencing big feelings she can’t explain.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreak Media/Getty Images Plus.
A little girl sits in front of a laptop with her head in her hands.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My ex-husband and I split on amicable terms two years ago, and I have sole custody of my daughter, who is five years old. He lives in another state, while I reside with my mother who helps me with raising my daughter. He visits as often as he can when he has days off.

My daughter’s developed a behavior I need help understanding: For the past couple of months, any time we’re on a video call with my ex-husband, she turns away from the camera and completely avoids talking to him. We always disable any possible distractions, such as TV shows or games on the tablet so that she can give him her full focus, but I don’t think she’s acting out of frustration about the electronics. If I’m being honest, I think she’s upset that he’s not in our life anymore. I want to help her process her emotions as she is very little and is experiencing big feelings she can’t explain. How do I help my daughter talk about how she feels, and how do I explain how she feels to my ex-husband?

—Helpless Mom in Harvest

Dear Helpless,

Marital separation is tough on everyone involved and especially on children. I’m sorry you’re all going through a hard time right now. In your letter, you make the statement, “He’s not in our life anymore.” I’d encourage you to reframe that. It sounds like he is still in your daughter’s life, as he visits whenever possible and calls when he’s not able to see her in person. His presence looks different now that you two have parted ways, but he sounds committed to maintaining a consistent relationship with your daughter, as well as a healthy co-parenting relationship with you. You’ll have to be able to see his involvement from that perspective in order to help your daughter see it that way.

In the meantime, if your hunch is correct, then your daughter may feel like turning her head away during these calls is the one thing within her power to do. Give her space to do that in the short-term. Don’t scold her for it or force her to look at the screen before she’s ready. But keep talking her through the situation, whether her head is turned or not. Let her know as often as necessary that, though her mom and dad are no longer together, you both always look forward to talking to her, whether you’re at home or away.

Encourage your ex-husband to express enthusiasm and excitement about talking to your daughter and seeing her onscreen. Ask him to consider making a game of getting her to show him her face. Maybe a mirroring or mimicking game, or peekaboo. Show and tell and scavenger hunts also work well on video calls.

Ultimately, figuring out an engaging ritual for your ex and your daughter may help both of them feel better about connecting to one another in this new, unfamiliar way. Reassure your daughter that even though things aren’t the same, your family is still committed to finding creative ways to stay connected. It’s a good early lesson about the many ways love requires flexibility and adaptation to change.

—Stacia