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Daughter Won't Sleep Without Dad

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My husband's 11-year-old daughter cannot fall asleep unless he stays in the room with her. We've been married one year and lived together four years. He separated from his wife when his daughter was four. The daughter visits every Tuesday night and returns Friday through Sunday morning.

When I met him his daughter would sleep with him through the night. He eventually got her to stay in her own room and only snuggles with her a few minutes and stays on the computer until she falls asleep. Sometimes this can take more than two hours. She's been in therapy for years because she could not deal with the divorce prolonged by her mother. He has told her that when she turns 12, the bedtime ritual will be reduced to 15 minutes. Although she's not happy with the decision she knows that it's time. I've also seen her exhibit inappropriate behavior towards my husband such as sucking his finger and kissing/nibbling at his ear as well as sitting or actually trying to lie on top of him. When I've seen her do this, I ask her what she's doing and she eventually stops. He does not think anything is wrong but I've explained to him she's growing up and getting sexual pleasure from his company. He finally sees that I'm right and has told her that she's not five years old anymore. Am I exaggerating this out of proportion or is there something wrong with this behavior? Also do you have advice about putting her to sleep. It's affecting our marriage. I insist that after a certain point there should be adult time. When she visits he's afraid to be with her for longer than 10 minutes.

A: It's unfortunate that he has helped create this inappropriate bedtime ritual. Given the nature of his divorce and her age at the time of the family's breakup, I certainly can understand why and how he could have been persuaded to remain in his daughter's room for long periods of time before she fell asleep. Well intentioned as his behavior was, it has created a tough habit for his daughter to break, given all the deep emotional associations linked with his staying with her at night before she actually falls asleep. This adjustment, "when she turns 12," will be difficult for her. I think you should take this transition very seriously, and I recommend family therapy. She associates much more than just her dad's physical presence with the number of hours spent on this ritual. This need for "possessing" her dad shows up in his being unable to be with you, alone, for any longer than ten minutes when she is present in your home.

I suggest that therapy begin to take on a family-based focus. She is old enough to attend therapy with her dad (and you and her mom if appropriate) to begin addressing some of the key issues present in their relationship. My guess is that you are still regarded by her as a rival for her father's affection and time. As she has aged, she has manifested her competitive nature for her father through these sexualized, affectionate actions. She does not need the emotional, sexual confusion that this brings. No blame needs to be handed out to anyone -- daughter, husband, mom or you. Just make sure that the therapy now begins to take on a family-oriented nature and that you, your husband, and your stepdaughter focus on functioning as a healthy unit.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


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