Q&A: helping 5-year-old deal with joint custody

Regina writes:

"My ex-husband and I have a five-year-old daughter (as well as an 8-year-old daughter).  The time is split approximately 65-70% with me, and she's (they) with her father every weekend (a long weekend).  We've been doing it this way since we separated when she was six months old. She has a very difficult time when it's time to transition back to mom.  She cries on Tuesday mornings at school because she knows that Dad won't be picking her up, but rather mom will. She has never cried about leaving me.

Her dad runs a diner near the school, and although Fridays are her days with mom, I still take her to the diner for lunch.  I also sometimes keep her dad's dog, Biscuit.  I do these things to try and bridge the gap, and also to show her that mom and dad get along very well.  We haven't even had so much as an argument this year. My heart bleeds for her, but at the same time I feel that the current arrangement is best.

She complains that she should have equal time with both of us, but I feel that a child should have a primary residence, especially a child her age. I have also tried to explain that although she spends one more night a week at mom's house, if you don't count the sleeping hours, she really only spends about 10 or so more hours at mom's.

Her dad is a very social person and she has recently complained that when with him she doesn't feel like she's getting enough attention.  He almost always plans social events for them on weekends.  I know that he's only trying to make sure they have fun with friends and parties, and that he's really a good father.  But sometimes I wonder if there is enough "family time" there.  I haven't approached this topic with him, as I don't feel it's my place to micromanage his time with the kids, and as I said, he's trying to give them a good time.  I know he loves them.

I seem to be the "disciplinarian" of the two parents, and she has commented that daddy lets her do whatever she wants, and that all she has to do is throw a tantrum or tell him he's handsome, and she gets what she wants.  I'm sure this is normal too. I know that this situation is what it is, and that it is normal for a child (especially a daddy's girl) to make the transition.

This is such a difficult (and hurtful) situation for me, as my 8-year-old daughter and I are extremely close.  She is "my" girl, but she admits also that she loves both of us the same.  She has never appeared to have difficulty with the transitions, but rather looks forward to seeing both parents.

Of course I take this personally, but at the same time, I don't.  Iknow that this is about her.  What can I do to help HER?"

This sounds like such a tough situation for all of you.

Before I say anything else, I need to say that I have zero experience with shared custody or negotiating parenting with a partner who doesn't live with me. So take everything I say as just speculation, and please give at least equal weight to the commenters who are divorced or separated who have BTDT.

It sounds like your 5-year-old is having a hard time navigating her desires for closeness and contact, the two sets of rules at the different houses, and her changing ideas about boundaries and control that are part of her developmental stage. On the one hand she seems to want more of your ex-husband's attention (even though she has plenty of his time). On the the other hand she's confused about the different disciplinary styles. If you're the heavy then of course she's going to chafe at the rules and discipline, even though she craves boundaries. If he's easier for her to manipulate then it makes her feel more pampered but also more out of control. I think it's hard for kids (even those living in only one house) to reconcile their strong need for boundaries and rules with their increasing desire to control their own lives, let alone verbalize their confusion. Your younger daughter is clumsily trying to tell you that she feels stressed and confused about being confused. Your 8-year-old is better able to express herself, and has probably worked through a lot of the stuff your 5-year-old is just hitting now.

I don't really know what's going to fix things for you, but I'm positive that sitting down and talking about it with your ex will make it at least a little better. He may have no idea that this is happening. Or he may know it's happening but have no idea how to deal with it (and might be increasing scheduling activities, thinking that will help your 5-year-old). She may be giving him a totally different story than she's giving you. But whatever's going on, the two of you need to be on the same page about how to deal with it. You don't have to have the same rules and same style, but you do both have to have the same expectations and commitment to helping your daughter make it through this confusing stage.

It would probably help if you each could have little emotional check-ins with your daughter at the beginning and end of your respective times with her. Knowing that when she says "Daddy doesn't make me do that" really means "I hate that you have rules but at the same time it makes me feel safe," or that "I don't want to go back to Mom's house because she never lets me do that" really means "I love being able to control you but it makes me feel scared, too" is going to help both you and your ex-husband keep things on an even keel for her.

That's all I've got.  I know there are parents out there who are dealing with this same kind of thing right now or have gone through it in the past. Any insights you can offer Regina?