Tell Me About It

My daughter is refusing to visit her biological dad in Australia

Tell Me About It: Even though she cannot articulate it, I think she is jealous of his new baby boy

PROBLEM: I am married with three children. My first child, a daughter, was from a relationship I had when I was in university. The relationship was over by the time she was born. However, her father has always been very supportive both financially and emotionally. He now lives in Australia and travels to Ireland almost every year to see her and has paid for her to go to Australia every Christmas.

In the past year his partner has had a baby boy, whom my daughter has not met. She has seen photos of the baby and has seen him on Skype calls. Her dad did not make it to Ireland this year, which is understandable as he has a lot on his plate with his new family. My daughter, who is 10, is very upset and, even though she cannot articulate it, I think she is jealous of the baby. She is due to travel to Australia with her aunt at Christmas to visit her dad and her new brother, and is adamant that she doesn’t want to go.

My husband, who has been a marvellous stepfather to her, is insisting she must go to Australia. Money has been relatively tight for us, but we have saved to go on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise at Christmas. His parents are planning to look after our two younger children. They are quite elderly and it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to look after another child. There is no one else I could ask to look after her, and anyway, I wouldn’t want to be leaving her with someone just so I can have a good time. I want her visits to Australia to be positive experiences and don’t want her to have to go against her will. This issue is causing a lot of tension, as we are due to make the final instalment on our cruise, after which point the money will not be refundable.

ADVICE: It is likely that the tension in the house is due to everyone trying to rely on you to make everything okay for them. This might be your opportunity to focus on what your needs are. You clearly need a break and the Christmas cruise is something you have carefully saved and planned for. A very important aspect of parenting is that of having happy and functioning adults in charge, and this requires that effort and attention is paid to the needs of the parents as well as to the needs of the children.

Your 10-year-old daughter is understandably upset as sibling rivalry is a normal and expected part of gaining a new brother or sister. She has a biological father who loves and cares for her and who makes considerable effort to be involved in her life, but of course she is counting his lack of presence this year as evidence of her abandonment.

In order to be able to understand and express this upset, she may need some help from a child and adolescent psychotherapist trained in methods of helping children express their concerns, worries and traumas (see the Irish Council for Psychotherapy website for accredited lists of therapists who work with children).

Your daughter is trying to maintain her comfort zone, and this is her method of feeling safe and loved, but you know she needs to maintain her relationship with her father and his family, so this must be your bottom line. Hold firm to the belief that it is good for her to go to Australia and to the notion that she is valued and loved there. She also needs utmost confidence in her place in your family in Ireland, and so your husband could work at reassuring her and demonstrating his devotion to her and their future together. Young children initially find it hard to let their parents go out as they struggle believing that they will come back.

With time they learn that the parent always comes back and it may be that the arrival of a new sibling has shaken your daughter’s confidence and she has regressed (as often happens) to a younger stage. Therefore, respond as if she were younger and offer comfort and reassurance without going into psychological explanations, as she may not be ready for this yet. With the help of a psychotherapist, you may be guided into understanding the world from her perspective, and when she feels safe she may be able to trust that you will not abandon her if you go on holidays.

In the meantime, if you and your husband have a steady confidence that your cruise will happen and that your daughter will be safe and cared for (there is lots of evidence for this), the tension at home should ease and you might be able to achieve your aim of enjoyment and relaxation even before the cruise happens.