Tell Me About It: My dad just uses me as a free babysitter

I don’t mind looking after my sister sometimes, but I feel like I’m being taken advantage of

PROBLEM: I am 19 and my parents have been separated since I was born. It has never been a big issue for me. I’m an only child and I spend the majority of the time in my mum’s place.

My dad recently remarried and has one child. I have also had a great relationship with him, but now when I try to spend any time with him he just makes me mind my little sister and he goes off. It’s not always to go out, but to do shopping or work or whatever.

I used to like spending more time in my dad’s house, but now I don’t want to because I feel like I’m being used as a free babysitter. I don’t mind looking after my sister sometimes, but I feel like I’m being taken advantage of. I’ve spoken to my mum and she sympathises with me, but she doesn’t feel like she can get involved.

Things were kind of tense with my dad’s new wife at the start but have settled down. I’ve tried to talk to her about this as well, but it always ends up in a shouting match because she feels that her need to have space to work is more important than me needing to study for my exams; my dad agrees with her and says that I need to grow up.

I love my dad and I just want to spend more time with him; I don’t want to keep having fights with him. I feel used and like he just doesn’t want to spend any time with me any more.

ADVICE: You sound like someone who has a lot of ability: you have managed to have a good relationship with both your parents in spite of their separation and also have a reasonable relationship with your dad’s new wife, so well done.

These characteristics will stand to you in life, and the chances are that both your parents have been involved in their creation and nurturing, so there is room for optimism. That you love your dad is obvious and, in a reversal to the situation with many teenagers, you actually want to spend more time with him – he is a lucky man, if only he knew it.

However, the feeling you have of being used can lead to bitterness and resentment, and the danger is that these feelings can take hold and become the dominant feature of your relationship with your dad, so something needs to be done.

Firstly, try to understand where he is coming from. He is going through what many first-time parents experience: loss of freedom, lack of sleep and not enough time.

I know it is not his first time being a parent, but his last experience was 20 years ago and he probably only parented part time with your mum.

He is trying to provide for his family as well as being a good father and decent partner to his new wife, which can put strain on all his relationships.

For many couples, these early years of parenting are frantic, and the main mode is one of survival. The baby demands round-the-clock attention, and the adults have to sacrifice their own needs to those of the child. All this is normal and has within it good developmental aspects: generosity and selflessness that ensure the best for the next generation.

The difficulty here is that your dad appears to see you in a semi-equal role to him at the parenting level, whereas you want to be in the child role, with him acting as your dad and putting you first.

In order for your dad to understand your sense of loss of him as a force in your life, perhaps he needs to know that you not only want to spend more time with him but that you understand the strain he is under. For that to happen, however, you will need his attention when he is able to listen to you.

Could you get a friend to babysit and invite your dad out for a walk and coffee? Ask him how he is and tell him how much you love your sister and how you want a role in his new life. Could you then ask him how he sees his relationship with you in the future? Tell him how sad and lonely you have been without having time with him, but perhaps also be open to the idea that it might take time for his life to settle down so that he can focus more on you.

Offer to help sourcing other babysitters so that you can concentrate on your studies, and open up opportunities for spending time with him. You could offer to continue to do your fair share of support for the family, but in return you want your fair share of his attention; that might be a small amount right now but it needs to increase in the future.