Q. My ex and I broke up three years ago. We have a daughter who is now 4. About a year and a half ago, my wife and I had another little girl. My ex is very jealous, and our daughter has told me that her mommy has told her my youngest daughter is not her sister. It’s very confusing for a 4-year-old and I’m appalled that she would do such a thing. I’m not sure how to handle it. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. There is a huge red flag here, and it may not be what you think. I could go on about how selfish and manipulative it is to tell a child an obvious untruth of that caliber, because if it’s truly being done, the psychological and emotional implications can be very damaging to both children. Professionals may need to intercede. However, before we chastise your ex, let’s make sure that’s what she really said.
I’ve mentioned many times in this column that it is dangerous to get important information from our children. If you do not talk to your daughter’s mother, you are relying on the child to process all she sees and hears on her own -- and at 4, it all could be very wrong.
I remember when a 9-year-old told me that she knew her parents did not like each other and since her daddy (in this case) liked this new wife more, she was afraid her daddy would like the new baby more.
Of course, that is not true, but the child used her child reasoning and that’s what she came up with.
The key is in how to prepare a child for the addition of a sibling and there are special concerns when the parents live apart and start another family. Children need clarification where this new baby fits in and ongoing reassurance that their parents still love them and see them as special.
Your daughter’s mother may need reassurance, as well. It’s not uncommon for parents of children from previous relationships to be concerned their children will be overlooked because a new baby was added at the other home.
That’s why, if you have children from a previous relationship, consider keeping your ex in the loop by informing them that you are having another baby before you tell the children. (It can be mere hours before, not days or weeks and then expect them to keep a secret.) Some might think this ridiculous. “That’s an invasion of my privacy!”
Truth is, when children go back and forth between their parents’ homes, there is very little privacy. Keeping the other parent informed clears the way for a positive response. Now when the children come home with the news, a cooperative co-parent can say, “Yes, honey, I know,” and reinforce the positive (for the children’s sake) rather than be surprised and maybe say something in front of the children they shouldn’t say.
Back to your original question -- how to handle the situation. Call mom. Get as much information firsthand as possible and together come up with things you both can say to reassure your daughter. Things like, “More people to love and to love you!” That’s cooperative child-centered co-parenting. That’s good ex-etiquette.
(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website exetiquette.com at firstname.lastname@example.org.) ©2022 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
This story was originally published May 17, 2022 1:00 AM.