Dear Lala, I’m a single mum and my daughter no longer wants her father around – I’m torn

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Dear Lala,

I’m a single mum to an amazing 10-year-old, her dad isn’t very present and doesn’t really put her as a priority, so our relationship is pretty broken.

Over the years I’ve tried really hard to be positive as I know how important it is for a young girl to have a healthy relationship with their father, but I feel like it’s damaging her more having him half in and half out of her life.

He sees her for half of the day every other Sunday. He’s always on his phone and not present, doesn’t make plans with her, or value the time that they have together. The 13 days that they have apart he doesn’t call or check in with her at all.

So, a few months ago my daughter came home after spending a few hours with him and she told me that her dad was acting inappropriately with girls when he was with her, she said that he is constantly looking at girls' bums and making noises at them.

But what was really worrying is she said that he always does it and sometimes they look really young, like secondary school kids.

As my daughter looks a bit older for her age, I’ve had conversations with her about what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t, so she’s aware, and seeing her dad act like this has made her feel disappointed and lost; so now she doesn’t want to be around him.

I am behind her on this decision as his actions don’t align with how I’m raising her. He has denied this of course but my daughter isn’t a liar and wouldn’t make something like this up.

Do you have any advice on how I can deal with this moving forward? This is so out of my depth. He’s done so many other things, but this was the last straw for me, and my daughter is at an age now where she can make this decision for herself. Any advice would be much appreciated.

Lala says…

First, I want to start by saying that you have handled things brilliantly so far. You have encouraged and supported a relationship between the two of them, despite the fact that he hasn’t been the best dad.

You have also believed your daughter unquestionably when she has raised her concerns and educated her about worrying behaviour. You should be proud of how you’ve raised her.

It is concerning that her father ogles young girls in the street, even more so that he does it in front of his daughter. Perhaps it’s such a habit that he doesn’t even realise he is doing it. It is certainly a gross and weird thing to do.

But sadly, it is a gross and weird thing that has not only been normalised but that is seen by many as some kind of harmless banter. If we stopped every man who does this kind of thing from seeing their children, then there would be a hell of a lot of fatherless kids out there.

It is an indicator of sexism and misogyny. He should not be doing it. It does not necessarily mean that he poses any risk to your daughter though – not beyond the obvious discomfort she feels from being present when he does it.

It is not a clear indicator that he poses a risk of sexual harm to your daughter, and it would not meet the threshold for sexual abuse, though it may be considered emotionally abusive if he is aware of how it makes her feel and continues. But in the way that you have described it, it does not currently meet the threshold for safeguarding concerns.

A parent is legally able to stop the other parent from having contact if they believe that there are safeguarding concerns (a risk of significant harm, physically, sexually or emotionally or due to neglect) and that it is in the child’s best interests to no longer see them. However, you need a very strong reason to justify that, and I don’t think that this would meet the legal threshold needed.

I spoke to family law solicitor Loretta Orsi-Barzanti who advised that if your daughter decided that she didn’t want to see him anymore, her wishes and feelings would be taken into account.

Loretta says, “The law uses Gillick competence to establish if she’s mature enough to make her own choices. It is a way of establishing the maturity levels of a child. They would do this by ordering a CAFCASS or local authority report. 12 or 13 is the average age for a child to have Gillick competence. The older and more mature a child is, the more weight would be given to their views.”

The younger the child is, the less weight will be given to their views. The law strongly promotes child contact, even sometimes where there are safeguarding concerns. Your daughter is not yet at an age where she can legally decide to stop contact.

But none of that would come into this unless he applies for a court order and issues court proceedings. So, you could potentially stop him from having contact with your daughter, and if he didn’t issue legal proceedings then there would be no fight on your hands, contact would simply stop.

If he did make an application to the court for a child arrangement order, then unless there is domestic violence involved or the child is at risk of harm, then the court process is likely to cost you upwards of £10,000.

If he did issue proceedings, it is very likely that the law would favour Dad in this scenario. If you were to suspend contact on the basis of him ogling bums, the courts would likely be critical of your parenting.

I also spoke with Antonia Birchall from JMW solicitors, who says: “Section one of the Children Act gives the presumption that parental involvement in a child’s life will further their welfare and that it’s in the child’s best interests to have a relationship with both parents.

“If there were concerns that he was being inappropriate with the child directly, then that may be an additional safeguarding concern. But on this basis, I’d be worried that Mum would be heavily criticised if she were to suspend contact for this alone. Dad’s defence would make Mum look hostile and would likely accuse her of parental alienation.”

So, to summarise the legal side of things – you could stop contact and if he didn’t challenge that in court then it would be case closed. If he did (and he would have every right to), then it would cost you a lot of money and he would probably win.

But I’m not sure that stopping contact entirely without trying to make it better first is the right idea. That doesn’t mean that I am excusing his failings, or that I think your daughter should be forced to have contact if she doesn’t want it. It means that I think there is potential for growth and change here if dad is open to learning.

I spoke to Adele Ballantyne who is a specialist therapist in separation, divorce, and limiting emotional damage to children. She says, “It is very common for parents who have not lived with, cared for and nurtured their children in the family home from a young age to not really know how to be parents. Parenting doesn’t come automatically, it is learnt.

“As dad has only had brief family time throughout his daughter’s life, then he has a lot of catching up to do because he doesn’t know what to do with her. He’s uncomfortable and avoidant. This is evidenced by the fact that when he is with her, he isn’t really present and is often on his phone. He doesn’t feel confident in communicating with her.”

This isn’t an excuse to justify poor parenting, but sometimes poor parenting stems from the person just not having a clue, perhaps they didn’t have good role models in their own parents, perhaps they haven’t bothered to sit down and think about how they can do better, perhaps they feel overwhelmed and out of their depth.

“Gender is likely to play a big role here, I imagine that if he had a son, he may find it easier to have alone time with him. Having a daughter can feel very alien to some men, it’s like they just don’t know how to interact with them. It feels as though dad needs some guidance on how to do better.

It would be worth talking to your daughter about this. She is old enough to understand that dad may be interested in being there for her but that he struggles. It may benefit her to speak to her dad about this.

Adele adds, “Maybe as she gets older and finds her voice more it may iron out. His lack of engagement with her life, not contacting her in between his time with her, all indicates to her that he is not emotionally available.

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“He could easily change this by taking more of an interest in her life, by asking her about her interests, things that are happening at school, and then calling her for updates on those things. If children don’t feel that parents are emotionally invested, then they usually just give up.

“We get the relationship with our children that we deserve. Investing yourself as a parent into the life of your child, remembering their needs, likes, interests etc, will mean that your children feel emotionally held and nurtured. He could turn that around pretty quickly if he wants to.”

Rather than seeking to stop his family time with her, it is worth taking a different approach. You have done brilliantly to maintain their relationship over the last ten years, so it seems that you have the skills to help to turn this around. Adele suggests finding space to talk to him.

She says, “His denial of ogling bums and his defensiveness makes it very difficult to discuss this openly with him. Maybe he felt attacked or guilty. How we approach conversations with exes is really important, we need to be curious and enquiring, not confrontational.

"You’ve told him that you find it concerning and that it upsets your daughter. Hopefully this will be enough to stop him from doing it again. Instead of focusing on that issue, it is likely to be more helpful to your daughter for you to focus on helping him to learn to be more present and engaged with her.

"Acknowledge the difficulties, ask him how you can help. Would he like you to join them for family time? Ask if he’d like to schedule a text or phone call in the week.

“Show him that you understand that he is learning to be a dad to a daughter and that you are willing to guide him. Don’t accuse him or be critical. Professional help from a co-parenting coach or a specialist therapist in a neutral place will definitely help”

The fact that he has committed to having Sunday afternoons with her for ten years does show that he is invested in her in some way. It’s obviously pathetic in comparison to what he should be doing, but it’s something. It shows that he is trying, even though he clearly needs a lot of help.

How you approach this really is key, and whilst it shouldn’t be your responsibility to hand hold a grown man to learn how to become a better dad, you’re not doing it for him, you’re doing it for her.

His half-hearted presence in her life is hurtful, but if she is able to understand that she is not the cause of that and that he is struggling rather than intentionally not being emotionally invested, then that may be easier for her to cope with than never seeing her dad again.

The older she gets, the closer she becomes to being able to make her own decision about whether she sees him or not. But for now, I would advise against cutting off contact (unless there are safeguarding concerns) and instead focusing on how things can improve.

I would recommend having a consultation with a family law solicitor (initial consultations are usually free). The advice here is based on the limited information provided and advice may change once you have been able to give the history in more detail.

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