I'm on the road today so I'm a little late posting. I wrote this morning on the airplane and now that I've arrived at my hotel (in a warm, sunny destination :o) I'm able to post. I hope you are having a great day.
My ex-husband insists on negatively commenting on my daughter’s appearance – hair, clothes, shoes, etc. No matter what she wears or what she does with her hair, he tells her she needs to “do something” different.
I’ve tried to stay out of it, but she comes to me heartbroken or lately, incensed over her father’s comments. Oddly, she resembles her father much more in appearance than she does me. How can I help without interfering in their relationship?
Signed, Caught in the Middle
You can't. Interfere away because helping sounds like a good idea.
I would approach this as if you were still together. You no longer share a marriage, but you are still co-parenting and you should do your best to minimize the effects of your separation on your children.
How would you handle it if you were all living in the same house? I bet you would have a private chat with him. You would ask him why he is doing this and tell him what kind of effect he is having on your daughter. Then, depending on the causes, you would look for a change. Do the same here.
I can only assume from your letter that his complaints about her appearance are largely baseless. Presumably she isn't going out the door in the morning looking like a vampy version of Madonna in concert. What, then, could his reasons be? The obvious question is whether he has resentment because of the divorce. Do you have primary custody of your daughter? Any contact with her could be a reminder of his frustration, putting him in a grumpy mood whenever he sees her. Or perhaps he has unrealistic and old-fashioned expectations of how young ladies should present themselves. If there is a new partner in his life, her resentment over you or his children could play into this; he could be reacting to and passing along negative sentiments that originate with her.
I can't predict which, if any, of these factors may be at work. If I were you, though, I would talk to him and see if he knows. Explain to him why the criticism has to stop and insist that he do so. As an ex you may have less leverage to ask for change than you did when you were married, but you should still try. If this is displaced resentment of you, then talking out the issues between the two of you may reduce the amount that spills over onto your daughter.
In addition, you can coach your daughter on how to handle criticism. This is not the last time in her life she will face it, and coping with it is an important life skill. We all need to be able to maintain a positive self-image in the face of negative external feedback. As many letter writers have already attested on this site, that is not always easy to do. Explain to her that she will face various forms of negative feedback in school, on the job, when she has a significant other, when she imposes unpopular rules on her own children, and so on. Help her understand the need to evaluate her own behavior objectively and honestly, to take ownership of any legitimate issues that others have raised, to use such feedback to improve in a constructive way, and to have the confidence to shed the emotional effects of unfounded criticism.
Has she actually explained to her father how his words make her feel? As unlikely as it may seem, it's possible he has no idea what kind of effect he is having on her. Hearing it directly from her might be the wake-up call he needs. Even if he won't listen, she is likely to feel better about herself (less like a victim) if she is able to stand up for herself in a mature, reasonable way.
If you have gained some insight into the reasons for his behavior, you may be able to help your daughter by explaining them to her. For example, this may be more of a problem between two ex-spouses, which he is unfortunately turning into a problem that involves your daughter. That still means she has an issue with her Dad, but it may help her to know that it's not just about her.
Hopefully treating him as a current co-parent rather than solely as an ex-spouse will make a difference. Good luck!
All the best,
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