3 year old angry & prefers dad - Divorce, mother's rage

Hello Dr Laura...like many a parent that contacts you, I am feeling desperate. It is very hard for me to ask for help as I am a social worker and therapist myself and have worked in the child welfare field for many yrs, and I am very ashamed to be even having any issues :'(

I have a beautiful 3-yr-old daughter that I have joint custody with with my ex-husband. We separated when she was about a yr old and now we are divorced.

I know that she is an assertive, passionate, independent, intelligent, precocious and most of all special child and she will grow more into these traits and do very special things in her life, I am sure. I also do my absolute best to do all of the gentle parenting stuff, to be attuned to her, to figure out unmet needs and/or prevent things, to see things from her perspective, to “love her through” things, to just sit w her and acknowledge that we are both having a rough day, whatever it takes…


yet I am struggling more and more bc she is apparently so angry at me bc she would rather be with her Daddy :'( I am someone who did not have the best upbringing and have always struggled w anger when I am triggered, and boy this child of course has figured out how to trigger me.

I worked w foster kids and families for yrs and it was very common as I'm sure you may know for the foster moms to just fall apart and say “I am turning into someone I do not recognize. I never reacted to my own kids this way. I feel like a monster”…and that is exactly what I feel like :'(

I guess my question is 2-fold, the 1st part is that I struggle w feeling like I am doing her more harm than good w the joint custody, if this is the reactive cycle that it is creating.

The 2nd part being is there anything else I can do to help her w this anger abt me depriving her of being w her Dad, as I believe she sees it.

There is no doubt that I am starting to act in more and more reactive ways that are further sabotaging our r/s and giving her even more stores of anger on top of what she already had.

It was only relatively recently that she started putting words to why she was melting down/acting out “Bc I want to stay w Daddy!”…

I immediately scoop her up and hold her and rock her and tell her that it is OK to feel that way and how hard I know it is to be away from someone you love so much especially when you are so little and how hard it is to be 3 in this world isn't it. I have even told her that I felt the same way when I was little (true…and I know my family of origin stuff must come into play here, very similar situation, except WAY more dysfunctional…I have prided myself on how relatively functional her Dad and I have dealt w this situation, but alas, not so much perhaps :'(

I also do my best to re-connect during and after any episodes where we both lose out tempers…I don't know what else to do except acknowledge that we are having a very hard time today aren't we and that we both get grumpy very easily…and I apologize if I need to…but some days are just a constant cycle of reactivity ;'( I yell and at times have been a lot rougher w her than I ever should be, and this breaks my heart bc I'm sure it is undoing every bit of connection I try and do.

I'm sure I should be in therapy although I do not have benefits right now and am not even working FT I have tried to work out my anger issues proactively before I even had her but just seemed to get stuck.

I know intellectually that she is not out to get me, that her hurt is greater than my hurt and her coping skills are far less than mine, and that her actions are saying she desperately needs me, and this helps me when I have the energy stores needed or whatever it is…but when I am stressed, overtired, hormonal, whatever, like everyone else, my coping skills dwindle, especially with her relentless nature!

I do have outside stresses, of course, and maybe more than a lot of people, but I've noticed that even when I take steps to minimize the effect of these on her, the bottom line is that that anger is still there. And sometimes I just feel like, I might as well just be a crappy Mom, bc trying NOT to be a crappy Mom is not helping, either…

You are probably wondering what it is she is doing to trigger me, and it is really not anything monstrous, but more like a subtle accumulation of stresses that are like a small sharp pebble in my shoe, but worse. During a bad day it's usually her creating some sort of a mess over and over and over, like yesterday she poured juice and chocolate milk all over the kitchen and peed 3 times on the floor and once on the couch…

on top of the constant whining and melting down, nonsense questions (Mommy what are you doing? Mommy is it raining?), asking me for something and just repeating and repeating even when I say OK honey I'm getting that for you…the worst thing she prob has done was throw water on my laptop…I don't think she meant to throw it on the laptop, but it was a pretty rough night I will tell you that.

I try my hardest to really figure out where all this stuff is coming from and I realize that it doesn't sound like anything that should be triggering me, but it does when my coping skills are compromised for whatever reason. I remember working w families and hearing what the foster moms would be going ballistic abt and it was always your run-of-the-mill stuff, but I knew that the dynamic must be so powerful anyway for it to be having such an effect on them. When I think abt it I recognize that she's just looking for connection, attention, even though I try my hardest to incorporate this into our day always.
She's always been a kid though that requires 100% of my time, which is hard to give her when it is just me, even when I only have her half the wk. My family is supportive and always want to take her which does give me a break…

I feel like I've tried to create more opportunities for us to connect, even if it's just at home, I forced myself to start doing creative play w her which I suck at but once I started it really wasn't so bad esp knowing that's what she needed.

Still, I could spend a day fully engaged w her, and she could still act out after or on the way home, getting out of her carseat multiple times, etc…I rack my brain and figure that it must be that she's tired, or perhaps she doesn't want the enagagement w me to come to an end, or maybe now she is just acting out her “difficult” role in an unfortunately familiar pattern…

but still I think to myself, geez, is it really supposed to be this hard?? I don't really see anyone else around me w pre-schoolers having to struggle THIS hard…I remember reminding foster parents that this is what they signed up for (no matter how much you prepare them, they're never really prepared, LOL), but I did not sign up for this, I thought…

You may also be wondering how my ex plays into all this…I don't have any concrete reason to think that he is feeding her anger, but I do know that he can be very passive-aggressive and it would not be the most shocking thing in the world if I found out that there is some subtle sabotage going on. I have def had to speak to him a couple times abt speaking negatively abt me to others (although he denies doing this in front of our daughter), and I also found out that for a long time he was not prepping her for my arrival at all, just completely springing it on her, she'd be happily playing and boom there I'd be, and I will never be convinced that he didn't have the common sense to know that this was feeding in to her meltdowns. …and I'm quite sure he plays up the fact to people that she has such a hard time transitioning to me, etc…

I never ever ever show any kind of negative emotion abt her feelings abt Daddy or her feelings abt me, just some sadness maybe that all of this makes her feel so badly, but hopefully not enough where she has to worry abt my feelings…apart from the other responses I've told you I've also said “I would never want you to think that Mama didn't love you or didn't want to see you” (to address why I'm depriving her of Daddy)…

I worry a bit that she thinks that I'm putting my needs before hers when I say things like “Mama loves you too and wants to spend time w you too”…recently I think I said something like “It's important when you're 3 to see both your Mom and your Dad, even if it makes you angry…when you get older you will understand better and you can maybe decide more yourself who you want to see more of…”

None of which feels like it is helpful …I guess maybe I should re-focus my goal on just accepting and handling the situation better instead of trying to change it, it may just be that she is going to be mad at me for a long while…I know that in cases of a death, there is NOTHING you can concretely do to make the main problem better obviously, you just need to be there with them in their feelings, maybe this is like the same thing…

or maybe there are more concrete things I could be doing, but that is part of the purpose of me contacting you! I hope this has made some sense to you and hope I covered all of the main info, and I thank you so much in advance for any support you are able to give!!

I am so sorry you are going through this with your daughter. I'm glad you reached out to me.

Here is the summary of what I understand from your letter (just the basics):

1. Your 3 year old daughter lives part time with you and part time with your husband.

2. She has always been highly sensitive and challenging.

3. You use gentle parenting practices. However, you had a hard childhood yourself and you have anger issues. Even when you try to minimize external stresses, your anger is still there. So you do get triggered, and sometimes have a hard time controlling your anger at your daughter to the point where you feel like you're "turning into a monster." You yell and at times "have been a lot rougher w her" than you should be. You notice that naturally this is undermining your relationship with your daughter.

4. Your daughter gets very angry at you. She provokes you by whining, peeing on the floor, making repeated messes, throwing water on your laptop.

5. Recently your daughter has begun saying that she is angry at you because she wants to live with her dad.

6. You have been able to be non-reactive about your daughter's preference for her dad, and have handled that beautifully by empathizing. You wonder if the things you say to her about the join custody are helpful.

7. You wonder if maybe you are "doing her more harm than good w the joint custody" because of your anger and her anger.

8. You wonder how to help your daughter with her anger and with her preference to be with her dad.

9. You wonder whether there is a better way to work with your husband on the transitions.


Right? Ok, let's take this one step at a time.


1. Your 3 year old daughter lives part time with you and part time with your husband.

Good. She needs a relationship with both parents.

2. She has always been highly sensitive and challenging.


Yes, she sounds very challenging. Remember that sensitive kids are usually empaths. They pick up what we feel but don't know how to handle it.

Also, I wonder what things were like during her first year. Did you and she form a secure attachment? If not, it would explain some of this. Luckily, that is something you can remedy, but you would need to see a therapist with her. Someone who specializes in early development and in seeing mother-child dyads. (NOT one of those attachment specialists who does forced holding or other traumatic interventions.)

3. You use gentle parenting practices. However, you had a hard childhood yourself and you have anger issues. Even when you try to minimize external stresses, your anger is still there. So you do get triggered, and sometimes have a hard time controlling your anger at your daughter to the point where you feel like you're "turning into a monster." You yell and at times "have been a lot rougher w her" than you should be. You notice that naturally this is undermining your relationship with your daughter.

I know you know this, but you need to be in therapy. I realize you have been working in the field for many years, but it is different when it is our own issues. There is no shame in getting help. The shame is in hurting our kids because we don't get help.

This anger is from your own past and it needs to be processed. I hear how much you love your daughter and how hard you try to be a good mom. I think you are doing a wonderful job, considering that she is challenged and you have your own issues. BUT your rage is hurting your daughter. These are her formative years. You don't want to ruin her life by not getting the help you need now. What can you do to get some counseling?

4. Your daughter gets very angry at you. She provokes you by whining, peeing on the floor, making repeated messes, throwing water on your laptop.

It does sound to me like your daughter is indeed provoking you. Usually, this happens when kids need to cry. It makes sense that when you get angry at her, she is very frightened. But it is not safe to show you those feelings at that time. So she suppresses them. But then at other times when she feels safe, those suppressed feelings bubble up.

That suppressed fear is also what is behind your daughter's anger. That, and of course, her hurt when she feels attacked by you. We all use anger as a defense against fear and other feelings we don't want to feel. She is terrified of YOUR anger at her. She needs to show you her fear, but she is not trusting you with it. She desperately needs to cry in your arms and show you her fear and hurt.

That is why even though you are very attentive and engaged with her, it is not enough. She urgently needs a chance to cry and let out these feelings.

So when you have a good day connecting and she acts out by getting out of her carseat three times, she is telling you that she feels close enough to you to let out all her upsets now. They are bubbling up precisely because she feels safe. She wants to let that fear out but can't just start crying. So she acts out. She needs you to set a kind, calm, firm limit ("when we drive we need to stay in the carseat"). She will respond by having a meltdown. You pull the car over and hold her while she cries.

She will not understand that what she is crying about is actually her terror that her beloved mommy gets so enraged and visits the rage from her past on her. She will seize on whatever she can -- Oh, right, I wish I were with Daddy at the moment! Anywhere but here!

5. Recently your daughter has begun saying that she is angry at you because she wants to live with her dad.


It is natural for three year oId girls to prefer their dads. BUT I do not believe this actually has much to do with her dad. This is a convenient way to explain it to herself. We frequently see this in preschoolers who are trying to explain themselves and don't really understand their own emotions. AND remember she is angry and lashing out at you. I remember my three year old daughter crying that she wanted her dad whenever she was angry at me. And we were not divorced, and she was very close to me. It was just anger.

6. You have been able to be non-reactive about your daughter's preference for her dad, and have handled that beautifully by empathizing. You wonder if the things you say to her about the join custody are helpful.


Sounds to me like you are doing a great job staying nondefensive, empathizing, expressing your deep love for and need to see her, etc.

7. You wonder if maybe you are "doing her more harm than good w the joint custody" because of your anger and her anger.


If you give up joint custody you are giving her the message that she is not important enough to you to fight for her. You will always be her mother. Not living with her will not help either of you resolve this. You owe it to your daughter to do this hard work and get past your anger. Joint custody is not the issue. Your anger is the issue.

8. You wonder how to help your daughter with her anger and with her preference to be with her dad.

You are doing great at helping her with her desire to be with her dad. Empathy is the key there, and not taking it personally. She may also bring up the theme in creative play, which is always helpful to kids in processing their emotions. You could do some art around this theme. You could take three bears and act out the handoff of the child and see what it triggers for your daughter and just be there with her feelings.

To help her with the anger, you need to help her cry. There's a lot to read about how to do this. You might want to start on my website with this articles and there's lots more there if you go exploring.

http://www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/The_missing_link_in_gentle_discipline_Emotion/

I also think you would find my book very helpful. Many parents tell me that it really helps them support their children emotionally as well as work through their own turmoil.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting

9. You wonder whether there is a better way to work with your husband on the transitions.


Yes. Sounds like things are good but not great there. He needs to give your daughter notice of transitions FOR HER HIGHEST GOOD. This is not about you, but about her. You need to make an agreement with him that you will both do this. Partner with him as the parents of this child you both love and get him to agree to help you with this. Call him before you head over every single time and ask him to please go right now and give her advance notice that you are on the way.

I hope this is helpful. I know that it is hard to work through our own issues, but your love for your daughter is tremendously powerful. Let that be your motivation.
Blessings,
Dr. Laura

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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