Q: I am reading your book "The Well-Behaved Child" and have a question that it doesn't address. I am a single mom with children from two different fathers. One of my ex-husbands (my son's father) and I have arranged to do regular "child-exchanges." One weekend, all the kids go to his house and on another weekend, they all come to mine. My 11-year-old daughter (by another father) frequently complains of being in some type of pain – stomachaches, headaches, and most recently, pains in her feet that (she says) prevent her from walking. Doctors have been unable to find a cause for any of her problems. I've even had her see a therapist, but that didn't help at all. My daughter says she hates the exchanges and that they are what's making her sick. I know that this particular ex-husband can cause a lot of drama, but even when an exchange goes smoothly she comes back complaining of aches and pains so I'm not sure that's the real issue. I don't know what to do any more and hope you can help us.
A: It seems to me that the solution to this problem is the most obvious one: Stop including your daughter in these child-exchanges.
I had to read your question three times to make sure I understood correctly that the man with whom you are exchanging children is not your daughter's father. That's somewhat odd. Furthermore, for you to include in these trade-offs a pre-teen girl who is not his daughter constitutes putting her emotional and even physical health at risk. To be blunt, you should not be sending a girl to the home of a man to whom she is not related unless you are able to be there the entire time. I am not suggesting that he is engaging in inappropriate behavior with or around your daughter; I am, however, more than suggesting that you aren't using good common sense here.
I don't know what sort of "drama" this man is capable of creating, but that description alone leads me to think that the emotional climate in his home is or can quickly become very disruptive, even threatening. Given the highly unusual nature of the arrangement you've worked out with him, I'm not at all surprised that your daughter is complaining of various aches and pains. Nor am I surprised that doctors can find nothing wrong. The aches and pains in question are most likely psycho-somatic.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that your daughter is inventing her aches and pains, that they're "all in her mind." I'm saying that these visits obviously stress her out (in fact, as you indicate, even the anticipation of an "exchange" stresses her out) and it is not all that unusual for stress to manifest in the form of physical ailments of one sort or another. Furthermore, prolonged stress can eventually cause serious physical problems.
I can't help but think that if you stop including your daughter in these "exchanges" her physical problems will quickly disappear. These days, being a pre-teen girl is not as carefree as it once was. Your daughter doesn't need this completely unnecessary complication in her life.
(Visit family psychologist John Rosemond's website at www.johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at email@example.com; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.)