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Dan B.
Dan B., Family Counselor
Category: Parenting
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Experience:  Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
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History: Divorced 4 years, very difficult ex, he refuses to

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History: Divorced 4 years, very difficult ex, he refuses to EVER speak to me on the phone or in person, and will only text or email, and only when he feels like it. He has a history of withholding information from me as a way to exert power and control over me.

Situation: 10 year old is visiting her father for the month of June. She texted me about an hour ago with a short message that said to mail her passport and an address was given. The manner in which the request was made was upsetting, since I had no idea what was going on. I felt that my ex was up to something, and I was fearful that he might leave the country and not return. I also felt it was totally inappropriate of him to have her text me like that, and not give any explanation ahead of time what was going on. My daughter, in turn, threatened that if I didn't mail the passport she would refuse to come home, and instead live with her dad.

I sent my ex an email explaining that how the request was made was inappropriate and that I didn't appreciate not being informed what was going on. I don't like how my daughter is using emotional blackmail to get her own way, and I especially don't like how her father's negative attitude towards me is affecting my relationship with her. It's like he's teaching her to disrespect me the same way he disrespects me. I know that I can't change his behavior, but how can I teach my daughter that her tactic of trying to use emotional blackmail on me is not appropriate? As it turns out, it's just a fishing trip to Canada, which I would have been fine with if he would have informed me first. I will be mailing the passport so she can go on the trip, but I don't want her to think that she can use emotional blackmail on me any time that wants to get her own way. What can I do to get her to understand things from my point of view?

danbayly :

Hi, I am willing to try to help you with your question. Give me a minute to finish reading through your question and then I will being work on your answer.

danbayly :

I see that you are offline. I will switch to Q&A and will try to answer your question there.

You have a great question about a very difficult, but not uncommon situation.

To begin with, I think that you have clearly defined the problem and question. You are right, you are not very likely to change your ex's behavior. But the way that your daughter communicates with you and has tried to emotionally blackmail you is a big deal and has to be addressed. Also, it was perfectly justified for you to be upset in this this situation. Passports are important documents and you had no way of knowing what was going on; your daughter could have had some crazy plan (as kids sometimes do) that didn't even involve her dad.

In these situations, you are best served by remaining reasonable but firm. I think it's great that once you found out what was going on that you didn't have a problem with it. This shows your daughter that you are reasonable and won't be vindictive or mean. You were just a normal concerned parent. You could explain to your daughter your concerns; not that you fear her dad would leave the country with her and not come back, but more generally. Such as not knowing what was happening, that she may have plans of her own with the passport, concerns over knowing where she is and how to reach her in emergency, etc. This general idea is the outline for communicating with her when these situations arise.

The second part, which is the bigger issue, is how you deal with your daughter's attempts at emotional blackmail. The best approach may be to ignore it in a strategic way. By this I mean, not to pretend she didn't say it but to address it on your terms in a way that you take control of the situation.

First, don't engage this by making statements such as "you don't mean that", "that won't happen", or in other ways that challenge her to try it. All behavior is an expression of a genuine need. If we look at this behavior in that light, we can determine that your daughter may be doing this as a way to try to gain more control over her life and living situation, which is a pretty normal thing to to. You can address this need without agreeing to the demands:

1.) Acknowledge the emotion: "It sounds like you're frustrated that I wouldn't just send your passport when you asked."
2.) Acknowledge the threat as an expression of a need: "It seems like you would like more control over your life and more of a say in what happens to you."
3.) Empathize: "I can understand that, ________."
4.) Express the effect that she is having on you: "When I hear you saying that you want to live with your father, I feel sad (scared, whatever) because I really enjoy our time together and I would miss you very much."
5.) State your stance: "There are still things that I need to do as a parent to feel that you are safe. Passports are very important documents that entitle people to a lot of freedoms and can be misused, lost, etc and I am more comfortable having this kind of thing handled by your father and me. I don't think that kids should be in a situation where they are the go between for their parents. That puts you in a position that doesn't feel very good and I don't ever want to do that. As you get older, you will have more responsibilities and be in charge of your own passport, but for now I am going to look after it for you." Same thing about the custody arrangement. "I wouldn't ever want to put you in a situation where you had to feel like you were choosing between your parents. Until you're older, your father and I will continue to make these decisions. I really want to hear your ideas and input and if necessary talk to your dad about it, but I don't want you to be in the middle of it. As you get older you will have more and more say over it, but I don't ever want you to be in an uncomfortable position where you have to choose."

Just adapt this to your own language, views, etc. You know your daughter better than I do. But, If you use this basic idea when communicating with your daughter, you are able to address the underlying things without becoming emotionally tied up in the threats that your daughter is making. They are most likely just threats, meant to elicit an emotional response. When this doesn't work, they will end.

You will need to set the example of how you would like your daughter to communicate with you. Don't be afraid to admit mistakes. And hold firm to what you think is best even in the face of blackmail.

A great resource for building communication is a book called "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall Rosenburg. It has been used in families, workplaces, schools, etc as a model for building effective communication. If you can model this example for your daughter she will likely pick it up and communicate with you in the same manner.

I hope that this is helpful. Your question is a very important one and very complicated. If you would like any other information, or clarification please let me know. Thanks
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One other thought I was having after submitting the last answer was that you definitely should continue to insist that your ex communicate with you, as futile as it feels. It may be too much to expect that he talk to you on the phone, but email and text will suffice as long as it is consistent. Once, you have set the precedent and expectation that there are some things that will only be addressed by parents without your daughter as a go between you can use this in the future, just letting your daughter and him know. "This is something that I will talk to your father about. I don't want you to be the go between." This sends a clear message to them both.
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Customer: replied 4 years ago.
Thanks for the additional input. I've been trying for 4 years to get my ex to cooperate with communication between the two of us, instead of going through our daughter, but he's very stubborn. He withholds information as a way to have power and control because he's angry over the divorce, among other things.

Right now, he's forcing me to go to court over the child support, instead of sticking to the original agreement. I try not to let these things get to me, but some times it's not easy dealing with someone who just likes making life difficult. Thanks again for all your help.

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