Mom struggles with daughter's sadness over parents' divorce

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Dear Mom: A few days ago my oldest daughter told me she wanted to live with her friend's family. She's only 15 years old, but she thinks she would be better off living away from me and her brother and sister.

This took me by complete surprise, because she is a very good girl and has never given me any trouble. I'm feeling heartbroken and guilty, because some of what she complains about is true.

I am a single mom now, and have been for about a year. I do need to work a bit more to make ends meet, and I do rely on her to help out with her younger siblings after school. I can't always buy her all the stuff other parents buy their kids.

Before her dad left she didn't seem to care about the things she didn't have, she was very mature for her age and never complained. I admired her and felt grateful she wasn't like so many other kids who act disrespectfully to their parents.

But since her dad left, no matter what I do to help her, all she can focus on is how I've ruined her life.

When I was a kid and my dad was an alcoholic, my mom bad-mouthed him and I felt trapped, so I've made it a point not to put my kids through that and to focus on the positive, and how our house is calmer, now that their dad lives somewhere else.

But my daughter thinks I should have tried harder to help her dad. I wish I could have. I worry I've lost her.
-- Single Mom, Whose Best Isn't Good Enough

Dear Single Mom:
First and foremost, my heart goes out to you. You and your family have been through a lot, and as a survivor you have been left to rebuild the fort -- a formidable task for anyone. And now with all you're balancing, your once compliant and understanding daughter is blaming you for the disaster.
Clearly, she expects a lot of her mother, as perhaps you expect of yourself.

Maybe I'm wrong here, but you don't strike me as the kind of person who sits around whining about how life isn't fair. And that's a good thing. It works most of the time. You get on with it and do what needs to be done, careful not to blame others for your fate.

But sometimes it's not only OK, but healthy to have a private moment where you throw your hands in the air and scream out to the heavens, "Enough is enough!"

Acknowledging your feelings about a hard situation does not mean you stop making lunches, kissing boo boos and paying the bills. It simply means you have an opinion about what has happened to you.

It means you are drawing a line in the sand. These important lines show you and others what you will and will not tolerate.

Your daughter needs to see that it's not only OK, but healthy to draw such lines. She needs to see your lines, she needs to see her mother.

From the sound of your letter, both you and your daughter have been impacted by growing up around parents who abused alcohol. One of the more common coping strategies used by individuals reared in such environments is denial of feelings.

Perhaps your daughter employed such a defense while her dad was living with the family. Now that he's out of the home and life is a bit calmer, she is most likely beginning to feel safe enough to explore her true feelings.

This is a good thing, except she's not very good at it, and will most likely express herself in peculiar and sometimes hurtful ways.

By taking a break from her role as The Good Girl, a courageous act in and of itself, your daughter seems to be asking you to follow along in helping her make sense of what has happened to your family. She's taking a risk because she wants more than denial, she wants you to know who she is.

From where I stand, you've hardly lost her. Don't be fooled by all the "you've ruined my life," talk. She needs you to remain steady in the face of her sadness. Period.

Remind yourself it's not about you. If you're not scared off by her emotions, she won't be either. Kids tend to take out their upsets on the parents to whom they feel closest. It looks like you're that parent.

Talk to her, let her know you're proud of her for drawing her first line in the sand. You might be surprised by what she tells you.

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