How to deal with fiancé's explosive child?
February 18, 2012 6:17 AM   Subscribe

My fiancé and boyfriend of several months has a troubled 10-year old who has been living with him in his studio apartment for two years, ever since her mother, with whom my boyfriend has no relationship, was hospitalized for mental health issues. The little girl has very low frustration tolerance and throws tantrums or starts crying at the slightest sign of not getting what she wants. On these occasions I try to keep out of the way and let her father handle her.

As I live in a different city I try to visit every other weekend, but this has been my longest visit so far, as I have been with them for the past two weeks, leaving shortly. The daughter loves me and has started to call me “Mom” occasionally at her own initiative. She is very affectionate and comes for hugs and kisses to me frequently.

Yesterday afternoon the nanny called my fiancé at work in tears, saying his daughter was very unpleasant to her and had called her ‘evil’. That evening the little girl said she had had a very bad day in school because her teacher had yelled at her in front of the whole class. (I’ve often seen her accuse her father of yelling at her when he makes a simple request, if she interprets it as a reprimand.)

My boyfriend was increasingly impatient with his daughter that evening, finding fault with much of what she did, sometimes justified sometimes not. She cried through most of it, but it mostly seemed like fake crying because she would do this very regular double sniffle every few seconds the way one does when imitating crying. Finally she ran off into the bathroom and called me to follow her and then asked tearfully why I didn’t defend her.

I don’t like to put myself between father and daughter, not when the situation is this explosive. I explained to her it was a bad idea for me to be involved. She ran back out crying.

Afterwards, as things continued to escalate, I had to step in. I asked for truce, suggested we start over, that she was after all just a little girl, and that Dad was in a bad mood. She finally felt validated, I guess, because she ran into the bathroom crying very loudly. My boyfriend followed her, I heard him apologize to her, and he held her there until she was calm.

When she came out she was cheerful and we made a cake together, and then watched a movie, cuddled together on the couch.

Today my boyfriend revealed that while in the bathroom crying, his daughter said she wanted to kill herself.

The little girl had had a very unstable early childhood, her mother moved several times, started and lost many jobs, had several relationships with men and women, attempted several businesses and failed, all the while being treated for mental illness (I'm not sure what exactly) and living in near squalor.

The girl has been seeing a therapist ever since moving in with her father, but most recently seemed stable and happy, so he was considering stopping the therapy. She still has a great fear of being left alone, does not want contact with her mother as she’s terrified she might have to go back, and also still wets her bed every night without fail so she wears diapers to sleep. Her teachers have said the tantrums and low frustration tolerance are affecting her performance at school in spite of the fact she gets help from a math tutor and a reading tutor once a week. The school is recommending she be labeled learning disabled in order to qualify for further help because, while she is intelligent and artistic, she easily gives up when schoolwork seems difficult and is now falling behind her peers in math, reading and writing.

What to do? What should I do in this situation? I feel guilty for not saying something sooner last night, but it was not the first time I disagreed with my fiancé’s approach. I believe he needs to handle his daughter his own way and I can give suggestions if asked but not interfere otherwise. A lot of the time he is right but sometimes I’m on the daughter’s side. She does try the patience of a saint, but also gets a tremendous amount of love from her father (and also from me).

Apologies for the lengthy post, I had trouble expressing it more succinctly.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have answers for all your questions, but I do believe that she should continue therapy even if she "most recently seemed stable and happy".
Have you guys considered family/group therapy? You would also need to join because you are going to marry him and you will be the stepmother.
It sounds like this little girl should be living with your boyfriend permanently because the mother is unstable either mentally or situationally or both. This little girl needs stability; she is afraid you two will abandon her and she will have to go back to her old unstable and unhappy life. You and your boyfriend will need to reassure her that her home life will be stable, she does not have to go back to her mother if she doesn't want to, and she will not be abandoned physically or emotionally by either of you.
posted by mrdmsy at 6:36 AM on February 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I certainly don't think he should be taking her out of therapy, suicide threat or no.

I think you're taking the right approach. She's not your kid and it's not your place to interfere. But I would have this conversation with him unsolicited: what does he think your role is? what is the joint approach when she triangulates? etc.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:43 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

IANAD, of courese but What you are describing is a very troubled little girl. His parenting style, unless it's abusive, is not the problem. It sounds like she needs much more therapy, not less. Perhaps group therapy and/or some behavioral therapy and help with school.

Honestly, it sounds like she's manipulating you to be on her side and let her get what she wants. This isn't coming from a bad place in her, it's how she's had to deal her while life. But now she needs to learn a different way which is incredibly hard. If her therapist isn't being proactive about this and setting goals then she needs another/additional one.

If you can't stay out of it then you don't need to be around her. It sucks to say that but this is your boyfriend's thing to deal with. You and he can talk about it when she's not around and you can support and encourage him. But letting her control this situation (which is exactly what she's doing) is going to ruin your relationship.

One final thing, what has her pediatrician said about the bed wetting? Does she happen to be overweight also? Sleep apnea could be something to look into. It could be a cause of the bed wetting and the behavior. If not that hen perhaps something else. I'd insist on a complete physical exam soon.
posted by dawkins_7 at 6:43 AM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

She sounds a lot like a child I worked with as an aide, a few years ago, who had similar outbursts and trouble in school. He seems to have grown out of it, with therapy, medication, and a lot of one-on-one tutoring, but I think a big part of it was also that he started to feel like his home situation was stable again, after a very messy divorce. Definitely stick with therapy, and do your best to make her feel stable. Time will, hopefully, take care of the rest.
posted by nonasuch at 6:51 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Boyfriend of several months? Woah. Did I read that correctly? You are moving waaaaaaaaaay to fast. If this guy is a single father living in an efficiency? with a kid with emotional issues? He doesn't need to get married right now. He needs to find a bigger place and deal with his daughter. I would back up and slow things down. It's probably too soon for you to be spending so much time with the kid. You both are putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on an already high pressure situation in my opinion.
posted by bananafish at 7:09 AM on February 18, 2012 [24 favorites]

Lemme get this straight -- when you visit, it's two adults and one child in a studio apartment?

Even just the two of them together in a studio must be stifling. Does this girl have any space to herself? It sounds like she is just wedged into his existing living situation, and even if she has some time each day on her own in the apartment, it still sounds like she's having a hard time adjusting. Then you come to visit and her territory shrinks down even further.

If caring for her is a long term situation for him, he needs to find a new place. As she approaches puberty it's only going to get more awkward and frustrating for her.
posted by hermitosis at 7:20 AM on February 18, 2012 [19 favorites]

You need to STOP popping in and out of this girl's life like this. You and her father are encouraging her to form one more impermanent bond to a maternal figure who is never around consistently and it is NOT okay.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:21 AM on February 18, 2012 [13 favorites]

The child probably has an attachment disorder. Not only does she attach quickly, but constantly tests that attachment by challenging all around her and play acting. She cannot trust these bonds around her yet given past abandonment and abuse and wants to determine if she needs to be in self-protect mode or "accept love" mode. I suggest focusing on her telling you how she really feels. When she starts doing this, ask how she feels, then ask what does that mean. When she provides an answer, ask her what that answer means. Hopefully, you will get her to express her fear of losing her attachments and at that point, reassurance that you are going to be there is the thing to do.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:37 AM on February 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Explaining to a ten year-old with massive abandonment issues why you "can't be involved" was a huge mistake on your part, I'm afraid. She shouldn't have to listen to that kind of thing from you. You are involved to her because you are in the room. That's really as simple as it is when you're a ten year-old, particularly if you're a ten year-old whose been traumatized by chaotic parenting.

Listen to what she was asking you and then look at her history - her mother is in a mental institution. She lives in a studio apartment with her father and you, on the occasions when you're in town, which is pretty infrequently relative to a kid's perception of the passage of time. She's shuttled around between nannies, school, her dad and you. It's pretty likely that because her dad feels guilty about everything she's been through he has a hard time setting appropriate limits which would give this kid a sense of stability, security and routine. It's pretty clear her internal regulatory systems are completely out of whack because she has no reserve of safety and calm from which she can soothe herself and stabilize her own mood. She has no way of knowing on her own that she is protected and cherished and needn't fear the occasional firm but loving reprimand by her father. Obviously, she doesn't experience criticism and normal correction from a parent the way you might. To her, it's negating her person and not just steering her away from certain behaviors. To her, doing something incorrectly or inappropriate makes her a bad person. She needs someone to protect her from feeling like a bad person. That's what she's trying to get from you - the reassurance that little kids get from their parents that even though they mess up sometimes, they are still loved and fundamentally good. My heart goes out to this little girl that she does not know this implicitly at this age. You need to recognize this as a serious problem for her, not just a behavioral nuisance of hers that you and your boyfriend have to cope with.

You and her father need to decide once and for all whether or not you're going to co-parent this kid. If you are, you have to be on the same page about discipline and limits around the house concerning bed-time, play-time, meal-time, when you're going to be there and when he's going to be there, schoolwork, etc. You have to be consistent, fair and committed to being her mother. If you decide you want that, I think you two need to talk to a counselor about how the two of you should go about setting limits and creating a safe space for this little girl. You should start talking to her about how she feels and what she fears and reassuring her that she is not bad or wrong to have feelings. She needs massive, consistent validation at the same time she needs to know what is appropriate and what's not. In short, she needs parenting from the parental figures in her life.

If you're not committed to that, you need to back way off and either stop coming around this girl until you know where you stand with her father, or you just need to end this relationship.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:59 AM on February 18, 2012 [38 favorites]

The little girl calling you "mom" is not a good thing, it's a bad thing. 10 years old is not 3 years old -- she's old enough to know you are not her mom, and that her mom is coping with illness. I don't want to sound cynical, but I'm not sure about the whole "fiance" label either. Too much too fast, under much pressure. Actually sounds volatile. Go home, get some distance, figure out how much of this you should be involved with!
posted by thinkpiece at 8:00 AM on February 18, 2012 [13 favorites]

So, how many days have you spent with this child that is now calling you "mom?" Not cool. You are asking good questions, but I have to agree you are moving WAY too fast. Parenting special needs kids (and it sounds like she is one) can put enormous strains on even the most stable of relationships. You are asking good questions, but it is a little flabbergasting that you are asking them AFTER committing to marry this guy. It shows that you don't know what you are getting into. You are not just marrying him -- you are committing to a very difficult situation that is going to be your focus for the next 10 (or more) years. Kids like this do not recover overnight. You absolutely need family therapy if you're going to go through with this, much more than you need suggestions about how to "deal with" her from Metafilter.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:02 AM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I want to second what hermitosis said. A studio apartment is too small for two adults and a ten year old. When I was probably about that age, I stayed with my dad on weekends. He had a one bedroom apartment and I slept on the couch. Even though it was only for the weekends, and my dad was in his bedroom, it added a lot of stress that I didn't have my own space to be in. I couldn't imagine having to live with him full time in a studio apartment.
posted by Weeping_angel at 8:13 AM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

It does scare me that you stated you have only been with your boyfriend/fiance for "several months". If you decide to integrate yourself into this girl's life as a parent and she bonds with you, and then your relationship with the boyfriend breaks down and you leave, just think about the damage you (and your boyfriend--this is on him too) will cause to a little girl who is already profoundly damaged. You could find yourself trapped: If you leave, the little girl could be thrown over the edge. If you stay, you will be miserable and that isn't good for the little girl either. You need to reevaluate your entire situation with the boyfriend/fiance. You live in a different city, and you see them every other weekend, and you have only known him for a few months? So you have visited maybe 6-8 times and you are engaged to be married into this volatile situation?
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:22 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey everyone! I think the OP made a TYPO.

I think the OP meant to convey they've been bf/gf for a while, and engaged for the last few months. That's more logical, yes?


My advice would be somewhere between TryTheTilapia (a perfect take on the situation) and Wordwoman, for tone and highlighting the seriousness/professional help aspect.

Nthing a studio is not the way to go. It's exacerbating this little girl's feelings of instability, I'm sure.
posted by jbenben at 8:52 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding dawkins_7's observation that this child is manipulating both of you.
posted by alphanerd at 9:12 AM on February 18, 2012

Is there potential to move to an apartment that gives the girl her own room?
posted by rhizome at 9:16 AM on February 18, 2012

TryTheTilapia seems to have a great handle on this.

Nthing the new apartment idea as well.

Also: if you are letting the girl call you "mom", you are accepting a parental role. It is unreasonable to expect to be able to back out of it as though it were Not Your Problem.
posted by corb at 9:24 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

If she has gotten to the point where she wants to call you Mom, you need to take a good hard look at yourself and see if you can actually be the Mom she needs you to be. Otherwise, I would strongly urge you to reconsider your engagement. Children need stability. This girl sounds exceptionally troubled. And if you marry her father, you cannot possibly just say, "Oops not my problem".
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:36 AM on February 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

My first suggestion: Family Therapy for all of you. Given what this kid's been through, and how in flux her life is, she's actually not as bad as she could be. But she's probably going to need therapy for a while.

So if you guys are getting married, you are her Mommy, and she needs to know you will be there for her, unlike her bio-mom. Once you do get married, if you can, start the process for making you and your husband her legal parents/guardians, and getting bio-mom's rights terminated; just that in itself will do a lot to assuage her fears that bio-mom will show up and take her back.

If you are not ready to be her mom, I'm not sure how you will make your marriage work with her dad. But if that's the case, you need to decide soon for all concerned.
posted by emjaybee at 9:52 AM on February 18, 2012

I think it is great that you are looking for advice and help on how to handle this situation. It sounds like a conversation with your fiance would be a good first step. You need to ask him how involved he wants you to be in parenting his daughter. It may be a relief to him to have your perspective and assistance when things get difficult with her, or it may drive him crazy. I can't tell from your post if the two of you have had this conversation yet, but if not, I think it is vital. I also agree that seeking family counseling with your fiance and his daughter, particularly if you are going to be living together, is important. It sounds like you care tremendously for this little girl, and in light of the instability she has had in her relationship with her own mother, it doesn't seem odd to me that she is calling you "Mom" or bonding with you as a mother figure. It is important for you to think seriously about the responsibility involved with being a co-parent to a child who needs a lot of attention and reassurance, and whether or not that is something you are up for. And while I agree that having two adults and a 10 year old in a studio apartment isn't ideal, I don't think that it is as harmful as some of the other posters have said. When we were young teenagers, my brother and I shared the living room of my mom and step-father's small one bedroom apartment for almost a year. It was a drag for all of us at times, but it was the best we could do financially and we made it work. As she gets older, it will become increasingly important for her to have some space that is her own, so you might think of ways to facilitate that (for example, I would often go to the laundry room in our building with a book to have some space). Due to her special needs and younger age, it sounds like she is going to need more supervision than that right now, but you might look for ways to give her some privacy and control in the apartment (maybe a locker that she can decorate where she can keep things that are important to her). I wish you the best of luck with your situation!
posted by ezrainch at 9:58 AM on February 18, 2012

I have never been in this situation so probably lack expertise to offer opinion, but I will anyway. In situations like this where there's so much instability and chaos for a child, I always, ALWAYS believe that the child has to be the priority, not the parents' relationships.

I feel like Dad's love life need to be checked at the door right now while he figures out how to help this girl. She is clearly very seriously troubled (diapers? suicide threats at 10??), and needs the undivided attention of the one person in her life on whom she can really count right now.

She doesn't need a part-time "mom" coming in and out of their (too small) apartment at will, doesn't need Dad worrying about his GF's comfort and happiness, or his own sex/love life - he needs to focus LASER STYLE on this baby and help her in any way he can, undistractedly.

I'm sorry, and I know this sounds super harsh, but you're just not that important a player in his life right now - rather, you *shouldn't* be til this girl is in a bit of a better place. I could be 100% wrong but this is my opinion.

Perhaps you and he could have an LDR right now while things get worked on, or something, but I feel like this Mommy-figure drifting in and out once in a while and adding to the chaos of life just can't be a good thing for the girl right now.

Oh, and a wedding in the near future? No. Just, no, please.
posted by tristeza at 9:58 AM on February 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

You are going to get married to this man but you don't seem to have worked out parenting boundaries.

You are going to become this child's stepmother but you've told her you can't get involved.

I think all of you need family therapy, at the very least.
posted by rtha at 10:19 AM on February 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't know how to address the family dynamics issues, but I would like to address the school/learning issues.

Undiagnosed learning disabilities *can* manifest themselves as behavior problems so they could be contributing to her unhappiness. My dyslexic/add son can be difficult to be around when he has a string of bad days -- he becomes moody, quick to cry, and quick to pick a fight. When he was 7 things got so bad at school that he would come home, hide under his bed, sob, and say he wanted to die. I finally pulled him out of school and homeschooled him for 3 years until he got back on his feet and back on track. He is now back in public school and doing great. When he is tired and on the edge I have to be super-careful not to lose my temper with him because he is already feeling fragile he gets hysterical if I lose my temper.

I would highly recommend that you guys read The Mislabeled Child. It talks about the different kinds of learning disabilities and they ways they can manifest themselves. Unfortunately schools are too quick to just pin the label they have in mind on a child and often don't have the resources to do a thorough investigation. If you can afford it, a full psycho-educational evaluation might be useful to figure out if there are underlying learning issues. Sometimes you can get a district to pay for one, but you will usually have a more thorough evaluation if you do it privately.

Feel free to send a private message to me if you have any questions about learning disabilities, treatment options, dealing with schools, etc.
posted by LittleMy at 10:20 AM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Kids need love, support, stability and consistency. This poor kid has love, I think, from her Dad, but is sadly lacking in those last areas. I know some people are saying not to get between Dad and the girl, but you are marrying this man! She's part of your life now, too. Plus, I just can't see how one can be in your situation and ignore a child that is so clearly hurting. I know I couldn't do it.

That said, she has issues (no wonder!) and you and her father have to address those while remembering that she is the child and you are the adults.

Obviously--I can't believe he is even thinking otherwise--Your fiance's daughter needs to stay in therapy long-term. It may be *this* therapist is not doing enough for the child. I am particularly concerned with the bed-wetting issues. Diapers are just dealing with the result, not the causes. There are a number of medications, like Paxil, that have proven beneficial for kids who wet the bed.

How is this problem being addressed, specifically? Dad needs to be on top of that. I would think a ten-year-old girl would feel a LOT better about her life in general if she could gain more control over her own body.

Where is she sleeping in this studio apartment? If she doesn't have her own bedroom, she needs one ASAP. I'm appalled that your fiance has not, after two years, made his house into more of a home for his daughter! Is money an issue? Has your fiance applied for any aid he may be entitled to as her caretaker?

It doesn't matter if he has no relationship with the Mom--this is his daughter. So if he doesn't sue for custody, he AT LEAST needs to make it clear that his daughter will always have a safe haven available with him when she needs it. She needs that stability in her life. Good lord, I'd be 'explosive' too, if I had no idea what the future held for me at ten years old! It's not as simple as either, "Mom is hospitalized so I have the kid" or "She's out, so let's ship the kid back!" Every adult involved should be considering what is best for this kid long-term, not what is most convenient.

That means that, if you are going to be in her life, family counseling is also in order. You and Dad should present a united front. That's not standing by and doing nothing when Dad is being unreasonable, OR 'taking her side.' It's having boundaries and consequences that everyone knows are in place.

If Dad starts being unreasonable because he is tired or stressed, which is only human, you take him aside privately and point it out to him, so he can then go make it right with his kid. It sounds like you did this when you called the truce. Good for you!

It's important that you don't let your feelings for Dad make you turn a blind eye, AND that you are mindful when daughter is trying to manipulate the situation. These family dynamics that come into play are what family counselling will help you all address.

And yes, get the daughter an IEP (Individual Education Plan) at her school! If that means diagnosing her with a specific learning disability as the teachers suggest, so be it. Sometimes you have to go through these hoops to qualify for the help you need for your kid. No one likes putting labels on kids, but getting them into the system means they qualify for special accommodations, like more individual attention from educators, additional time to take tests and hand in assignments, etc. It will actually work to his daughter's advantage.

MefiMail me if you want to know more about my own experience with learning disorders and IEPs. My son's been reading at a college level since junior high, kicking ass in his AP classes, scoring top of the chart on state assessment tests. He's smart as a whip, eternally curious, popular with the kids and a favorite with his teachers. Obviously, we're proud as can be of him! He also has an auditory processing disorder, which was diagnosed when he was in preschool. Thanks to his IEP, he got help when he needed it and his auditory processing issues never held him back.
posted by misha at 10:29 AM on February 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

So many questions: what was your fiance's relationship with the child before she moved in like? was he a regular presence in her life? who has legal custody? what exactly is it that you find fault with in your fiance's approach, and what are your alternate suggestions? does your boyfriend welcome your input on child-rearing?

If you are going to marry this man, and co-parent his child, you need to start by giving her a stable environment, which should include adequate room for her (and you and her father) to have their own space - and/or for her to have some external activities that she enjoys away from you and her father. She should continue therapy until she actually IS better, not until she is just acting that way. You should all be in therapy, together, as well. And unless you and her father have really only been together a short time/she's only been around you a few times, you really can't back out of explosive situations and then step back in, especially if she's calling you Mom. All of these things are unfair to her.
posted by sm1tten at 10:57 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was in a very similar relationship as you describe a while back, with the difference being that I have three kids of my own and I have a degree in special education. So I know what you're going through and I know a lot about kids with issues.

Having said this, I'm going to say something you may not want to hear: unless you recognize that your fiancee is not a good parent and you're ready to live with their horrible dynamic and her nightmarish behaviors, RUN from this relationship as quickly as you can. Your fiancee is not dealing at all effectively with his daughter's issues and from what you've described, seems like a pretty bad father.

You said the daughter still has a great fear of being left alone, does not want contact with her mother as she’s terrified she might have to go back, and also still wets her bed every night without fail so she wears diapers to sleep. Her teachers have said the tantrums and low frustration tolerance are affecting her performance at school. She said she wants to kill herself and yet, her dad thinks she's doing better and wants to stop therapy???

If anything, she needs a much better therapist, because whatever is ongoing sure as hell isn't working.

You mention also that the dad and she share a studio apartment, which is completely inappropriate. He's hired a nanny who calls in tears because the daughter is calling her names? Either he can't hire a decent nanny or this kid is wildly out of control. You also mention that while you were there he was unreasonably critical of her and the situation was explosive.

And this is right in front of you?

So imagine the dynamic between them when you're not around. Trust me; it's most likely a whole lot worse.

I wish I could tell you how much I understand the position you're in (from the way you describe it, I almost wonder if it's the same man). I was in pretty much the exact same relationship, but I realized over time that my bf's daughter's behaviors (which were wildly out of control) were mostly caused by his bad parenting.

Please take time to consider this: if you get married, nothing about her behavior or their relationship will change. And you'll be stuck with it.

Are you sure that's what you want?

TL/DR: What should you do? RUN LIKE HELL.
posted by kinetic at 1:47 PM on February 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

What to do? What should I do in this situation?

You don't need to run like hell, but you need to figure out you want, what you're getting into and what you're future husband wants/needs and understands. Here's a list of things to do, based on my experience as stepfather who got into a similar type relationship, though admittedly not as seemingly dire as yours, based on what you're written here.

1. What do you want? Do you want to marry this man and be a sort of mother to this child? Seriously, when you stop and think about it, do you think "This is home, this man, this kid, despite whatever problems and issue there are, this is home, because those negatives pale in comparison to the awesome love and feeling I have at the thought of spending the rest of my life with this man, this child"? If the answer is no, then need to work on fixing that, with him, or slowly walk away. If the answer is yes, proceed.

2. Now that you know what you want, what does he want? What role does he see you playing in his life and his daughter's life? My person thought is that he has to want and willing for you to be parent to the girl, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. You get to make rules, discipline, praise, punish, pamper and play with her. There can no him and you, there has to be an "we" and "we are raising this child together". Ya'll can do the "Oh she's his child" thing, but that isn't beneficial to either ya'll or her, never mind the fact that she will play ya'll off one another if the relationship between him and you is anything less that "we, your parents"

3. Ok, if both of ya'll agree on that point, the next point is to make it explicitly and implicitly plain to everyone around ya'll. His family needs to aware of this and accept it. The kid's mother's parents need to be are of this and accept it. On legal documents, you're noted a legal adult who can pick her up from school, take her to the doctor, sign for her medications, whatever. Because ya'll are unit and rest of the world needs to know that.

Ok, now you've got a basic foundation to build family unit on. It's not going to be easy or perfect and you will make mistakes. That's ok. This is a long game, where your goal is not so much how the kid is doing know, but knowing with the love and guidance of two parents and extended family and friends and maybe some therapy, she's going to be ok.

About the kid: she obviously has issues. Having a stable environment, both physically and emotionally will help that. Recognize what you're dealing with in her, a survivor who has had to do and think things that kids shouldn't have to, yet she has. She's a manipulator, not because she's a bad person, but because fake crying and/or being dramatic was the only way to get adults to pay attention to her. That's natural, she did what she had to do, to try to get her needs and wants met. You'll have to work on that with her, realizing it's a slow process to fix this. And important thing to realize is that she may see nothing wrong with manipulating people, because it's all she knows. This is the dark side of neglect and abuse: the abnormal becomes normal and is seen as natural. You're going to have to work with her on that, teach her to ask for things, that whatever one of you says goes and that playing you two against each other is wrong and won't be tolerated.

One of the first things should be getting her a separate room. It may not be next week or next month, but it should be goal. Getting her some personal space should help. Presumably ya'll are working towards this. She'll probably hate it at first, because she doesn't like to be left alone. That's ok, simply having it there, for when she's ready will help.

"I explained to her it was a bad idea for me to be involved. "

She's calling you mom. You're involved. You and her father need to recognize this and stop presenting yourselves as separate entities. Remember, ya'll are a unit.

Side note: The kid may have suffered sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse. Discus with dad and/or therapist.

On her being sensitive to criticism, here's what I would do and say:

"Hey, you know your'e great and awesome, but you can't have everything your way and sometimes you'll make mistakes. That's ok, that's completely normal. Sometimes I make mistakes and friends correct or your dad does. They do because they love me and care about me. Just like me and your dad and your teachers love and care about you. You're a kid, a great kid, smart and full of artistic talent and you're going to be grow up to be a hell of an adult. But in order to be that great person, you need guidance, just like all kids do when they're growing up. I'm here and I love you, but part of me being here it to help guide you and that's what's going on, ok? Now, let's look at the problem again and see what can be done about it."

Some variation of that, repeated every time she tries to pull this, should help her feel less attacked, over time. Always try to end it with a hug and kiss to let her know this is coming from a place of steady and stable love. Because as much as she needs a room of her own, what she needs more is stability in her home life.

Therapy is obviously still a good idea of she's wetting the bed, but keep in mind that it takes the right therapist to help her, one she trusts and likes. Remember, it takes time though.

Is she developmentally disabled? Maybe, I'd recommend getting her checked out for that and then getting a second opinion if you can. Kids who are abused and neglected develop differently than those who aren't and this can effect the maturation process. No one in this thread can definitely say whether it's permanent and can be worked out with a steady and stable home life. Definitely get her tested, if you can.

Long story short: This will not be easy or perfect family. But few are, and plenty come out ok, despite whatever issues may be there. My wife is bipolar and while this frustrating and confusing for our daughter at times, in the end, it's ok, because my wife clearly loved and cared for her child the best she could, even when the kid didn't like it or understand it. I came into their life and helped lend a stabilizing hand, over time. It wasn't perfect, it was learning process for all, but now, ten years on, it's worked out pretty fine. The kid knows she's loved and that we enjoy her company and she's blossomed over the years.

So for you, recognize that this won't be easy, figure out if it's what you want, what he wants and then proceed ahead, realizing the kid needs a large part of your focus. BUT. Don't neglect your relationship with each other for the child. You still need a life and in process, you'll be teaching her how to have one.

Good luck, feel free to contact me about Mefi Mail if you have other questions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:55 PM on February 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

The child probably has an attachment disorder. Not only does she attach quickly, but constantly tests that attachment by challenging all around her and play acting. She cannot trust these bonds around her yet given past abandonment and abuse and wants to determine if she needs to be in self-protect mode or "accept love" mode.

The same thing leapt to my mind. The immaturity, the over-eager affection, the with-her-or-against-her thing. Not that I think it's appropriate for me or anyone else to hand out a casual armchair diagnosis of detachment disorder, just that it might give you another way to think about her behavior and think about what kind of behavior you want to model for her.

Doesn't it sound like the child is trying to figure out who she is and how people work? A more apt way to think of her "manipulative" behavior (with a wincing apology to such children for the clumsy analogy) might be to imagine an alien trying to understand the complexities of human interaction. People don't say what they mean -- teachers "ask" you to do things that are really orders. People do put on a show when they want validation -- think of playfully fishing for compliments from your significant other.

The girl has been seeing a therapist ever since moving in with her father, but most recently seemed stable and happy, so he was considering stopping the therapy. She still has a great fear of being left alone, does not want contact with her mother as she’s terrified she might have to go back, and also still wets her bed every night without fail so she wears diapers to sleep.

What do her pediatrician and therapist say about the bedwetting, and what's the plan at home? Occasional bedwetting that late is one thing, but a ten year old girl in ordinary physical health who not only wets the bed every single night, but willingly wears diapers to bed every night should not be considered "stable and happy" by her father.
posted by desuetude at 8:24 PM on February 18, 2012

Since you are moving toward marriage and stepmotherhood, I suggest you have a conversation with your fiance about your role in parenting his daughter. I agree with everyone who said "family therapy" as well. If you are going to become a permanent part of his life and hers, both you and she deserve to know what role you will play. Has she had a psychological evaluation? Has she had a medical evaluation about the bedwetting? What does the therapist say about how therapy is going? What does she say?

From your description, she sounds like a desperately unhappy little girl who needs a LOT more support than she's getting right now. She lived in an unstable, frightening situation for eight years. Her dad is going to have to work very hard to build up her trust in adults; she will need support all the time. If Dad's bad mood is enough to make her say she wants to kill herself, she is nowhere near "stable and happy". The fact that he thought she was stable and happy is a major concern by itself; either she's very good at hiding her feelings, or he doesn't know how to read his daughter at all. She needs help, and she deserves to know if you will help provide it.
posted by epj at 8:45 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Thank you all for your replies. This is a tough subject and it is not possible to convey in a short AskMe post the nuances of the situation but all of your different perspectives have helped me see it with more clarity. I actually read this whole thread to my fiancé. The comments that most resonated with us were Try the Tilapia’s and Brandon Blatcher’s.

Try the Tilapia said:
“she doesn't experience criticism and normal correction from a parent the way you might. To her, it's negating her person and not just steering her away from certain behaviors. To her, doing something incorrectly or inappropriate makes her a bad person.”

This is exactly what is going on, thank you for making us recognize it. She has implied as much at times but it’s hard for us to know what’s important in the heat of the moment.

I also appreciate the comments about my popping in and out every other weekend as being too infrequent from a child’s view of time. We are working towards moving to a bigger space together in the summer, and this is a temporary solution until then. The daughter knows this but it won’t hurt to reassure her continuously.

My fiancé has asked me to feel free to become more involved in parenting her. It was never my goal to remain on the sidelines, but I did want to be sensitive to his authority and not barge in uninvited with my opinions.

Regarding the bed wetting, I agree it needs to be addressed. My fiancé recalls having nighttime accidents himself at that age, although not at this frequency, so he didn’t consider it something that needed to be looked into more urgently, particularly as the pediatrician and therapist are both aware of it and don’t seem to think medication is warranted.

As for fears of a hasty marriage, that’s not on the cards, we were simply ready to be engaged.

Thanks again for all of your very helpful insight, I am grateful!
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:45 AM on February 22, 2012

I appreciated Ironmouth and Desuetude's suggestions. These emotional problems are exactly what I've been trying to describe in my own 9 year-old daughter. The difference for her is that we are in the most stable family situation possible. We make 'Leave It to Beaver' look like 'The Ice Storm.'

But something is obviously wrong. Unfortunately, just telling someone to try 'therapy' isn't necessarily helpful. In my experience, you have to say something to the therapist that leads him down the right path. After all, he's only able to get part of the picture--the parts presented to him aren't necessarily the relevant parts. It's possible that a therapist is looking too much into the unstable family situation, and the sad situation with the girl's mother. The girl could have a mental disorder entirely her own (these things are possibly hereditary), and not just in response to the situation at hand.

What I would suggest for the OP and her fiance, and what I plan to do myself, is to start using the phrase "attachment disorder" with the therapist and see if that leads anywhere productive.
posted by Jane Austen at 8:52 PM on February 23, 2012

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