My seven-year-old daughter has seen some bad fights in our house, to the point where my husband and mother-in-law would abuse me, even slap me when she was 4. Then I went away with her for one year and stayed with my aunt and uncle. Later, my mother-in-law was hospitalized for mental illness—she died last year. Since then, my husband has really changed, we have gone for counselling and are on a much better footing. I have forgiven him and wish to work on this marriage. Seven months ago, I moved back to my husband’s home with my daughter. However, my daughter is so angry and withdrawn from her father that he feels she will never ever forget or forgive. How do I handle this?
Your daughter (as well as both of you) need to see a counsellor on a sustained basis, not just for one session. While a counsellor has helped you with your marital issues, there is now another aspect to be tackled. The counsellor will speak to your child alone, as well as to your husband alone, and also have some sessions with you as a family or with just father and daughter together.
Mind the gap : Children need time to come to terms with the past. Thinkstock
In the adult world, we are able to make our peace with a spouse (even though that in itself has not been easy for you, I am sure) and process the past in our own way, make some compromises, take into account some practical considerations, etc. A child would not have access to any of these processes—for her, the initial breach of trust and love with her father remains uppermost and dynamic. She continues to feel unsafe and afraid in his presence.
Also read | Gouri Dange’s earlier columns
While it is also a question of giving her enough time and space, do keep in mind that some of those traumas and her deep mistrust of her father may never fully go away. What he can do, perhaps under the guidance of a counsellor, is to put in words the fact that he was wrong in what he did, and assure that he has made a clean break from his past behaviour and is, in many ways, a different person. She may not accept this or be able to believe it right away, but it is something that she needs to hear. I would also caution you and him not to beg and cajole and insist on her forgiveness, because this puts her in an awkward and painful position.
Beyond a point, it will be your husband’s behaviour, trust-building measures, and also your being happy again that will get her to let the past go, at her own pace. As you must know, it is not easy for a child who has at one time seen her mother being traumatized by someone to accept that person back in the mother’s life. There is bound to be rage, confusion, hurt and fear, and she will need reassurance at many levels, verbal and non-verbal, to feel good about the family again.
My daughter is 13 and till last year she used to complain about a few girls being mean to her—about her clothes, her accent (she grew up in another part of the country till she was 10), and even the car in which she was dropped to school. We taught her to ignore this and sometimes even come up with a smart comeback. Now, to our dismay, we find that she has turned pretty mean herself, and while she may not say things about other girls’ clothes or accent, she is quite cutting about people who don’t have as much general knowledge as her, or who are “dumb” or who don’t read, or who watch Hindi serials, etc. How do we change her behaviour?
This could well be a passing phase in a child who has till recently felt like the underdog. Now she feels she has found her own “voice” and identity, after putting up with the humiliation that the other girls heaped on her. In this phase, she has found a way to feel good about herself only by being as mean or dismissive as the other girls were.
However, even if it is a phase, it is important that you and other adults close to her help her find a balance—between feeling good about oneself and being derisive about “the other”. Perhaps the coping strategy of being “counter mean” to the mean girls was needed at that time. Now that she can hold her own, perhaps you can help her to come off this stance in some small ways. Currently she is making the distinction that laughing at accents and cars and clothes is not cool at all, but being scornful about less reading or TV watching is cool. Teaching her that it is not cool to be mean to and about anyone is now something that you could work on.
It is well known that children (and even some adults) pass on their traumas in the same coin as they suffered them. Gently teach your daughter that while it is important to be strong and come up with ways to handle “meanies”, passing on the meanness to someone else serves no real purpose. Of course your daughter is young, and you will have to find age-appropriate ways to explain these things to her. I would suggest that you could let her “indulge” in some of this sharp talk for a bit though, of course, not directly with any person.
After some time, you could draw her into a chat about how it feels to be mean—and whether it isn’t easier to understand other people’s choices and let them be, even if she doesn’t particularly like them. However, do keep the conversation easy and flowing and avoid making her feel bad about herself. The attempt here should be to gently nudge some new perspectives in place, rather than lecture her too heavily. After all, she has been dealing with being pushed around and ridiculed, and needs to be given the time and space to process all of that in her own way too.
Gouri Dange is the author of ABCs of Parenting.
Write to Gouri at email@example.com