Concerned About Husband Sleeping With Daughter

Reader’s Question

My question concerns my husband’s practice of still putting his 10-year-old to bed. She is my step-daughter, and her dad and I are recently married. I understand based on asking him that when she is at home, she sleeps with her mother. She has a 14-year-old sister who does not have this problem.

What concerns me is not the putting her to bed (tucking her in, reading a story, etc.) but the fact that he says he has to “stay in there” until she falls asleep. Quite often he falls asleep in her bed, waking in the morning. If she wakes during the night, and he is in bed with me (where he normally sleeps) he gets up and goes back with her. This occurs every time the child comes to visit us, which is 1-2 times a week and lately at least one day during the weekend. This child has several issues and has been in therapy for the past year due to the divorce, I am told. But the sleep issue has never been discussed or thought odd — to my knowledge.

I have expressed that I find this inappropriate due to her age and also that it is setting a bad standard that will be hard to break when/if it ever is, causing her much more trauma. Recently, I have demanded that we go to counseling and suggested that he and his wife talk to the child’s counselor about steps to take to break this habit for everyone. This child is way too coddled (allegedly cannot wash her own hair and still has her mom/dad bathe her) and desperately needs independence developed. This has become a major obstacle during nights when she is here, even to the point of “joking” about not falling asleep in her room. It is much more than just the spoiled youngest child.

I understand about the guilt involved in divorce situations with children, as well as the fact that some children revert to childish habits in times of stress. But, this has apparently been going on since day 1 with this child. It is not that I am “jealous”, but it is disruptive to my sleep pattern and the household. Also, I am pregnant and do not want such patterns or habits influencing the new child.

Is this normal? Am I making a big deal out of nothing? My husband, when I tried to address the topic with him, complained that I was insinuating something else was going on and “thinking dirty” — but I do not think anything inappropriate is going on. I do think that if continued this will cause problems for everyone. When this child has friends spend the night, this is a non-issue. It just seems that for multiple reasons, with this child and not her sister, neither he nor his ex-wife will set limits or boundaries with her. In my opinion, they do her a disservice.

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In sum, I NEED ADVICE! How can we ALL come to an agreeable solution?

Psychologist’s Reply

Let me start with saying that you appear 100% correct in your concern for this situation. Like you, I don’t sense that something sexually abusive is happening, but sexually inappropriate behaviors are present. No father should be helping his ten-year-old daughter in the bath. Like you, I suspect issues in the previous marriage environment created dependency and immaturity in this child, with both parents accommodating the child’s needs, prompting the child to remain in a regressed, dependent, and much younger development level. They are using behaviors and interventions parents often use during a temporary emotional crisis — and incorporating them into a lifestyle for the child. Children often sleep with parents (notice that I say parents — plural) in a crisis (thunderstorm, scary movie, emotional distress, etc.), but parents then encourage the child to return to their normal, independent routine when the crisis is over. This has not happened in this case.

This is more than a disservice, it’s dangerous. While the child appears to be developing normally in other areas, such as having sleep-overs with friends, her immediate regression to that of a helpless child in the presence of family is very unhealthy. This is also unhealthy from a social standpoint for you and your husband. Your pregnancy, for example, will actually amplify these issues and the arrival of a new child will make matters even worse as the stepdaughter will regress even further in competition with the newborn for attention. You’ll have a situation where a ten-year-old stepdaughter attends schools and has friends, yet regresses to needing help in the bath when she returns home. This is not good. Some recommendations:

  • Have a very serious discussion with your husband about this matter. Remind him that the concerns are not about sexual abuse but rather about the uneven social/personal development of the child.
  • Keep Dad out of the girl’s bathroom! While this may be a behavior that Dad and the child didn’t outgrow over the years, it would be seriously misunderstood by school and other authorities in the community. If the stepdaughter casually announces in class “My Dad helps me take a bath”, Child Protective authorities will be visiting your home. It doesn’t matter what excuses and justifications have been used over the years for this behavior — it’s got to stop. If the child needs/demands help in the bath, you offer to help.
  • Focus on the stepdaughter as a pre-teen, not a pre-schooler. Assure her that she is growing up and behaviors must be different. If she awakens at night, allow her to use a television or music device until she falls asleep again. If she’s upset, you respond rather than Dad. In this manner, you are providing some emotional comfort but gradually decreasing Dad being “on call” all night.
  • Involve the stepdaughter in your life and the pregnancy. Encourage her to see the pregnancy as an opportunity for new activities rather than a competition for attention. All families have a “table of organization” with each person having a role/job. Jealousy surfaces with a pregnancy as the infant becomes the center of attention — knocking someone out of a role (the stepdaughter in this case). By encouraging her to become involved in a new and more mature role, she’s not been fired or losing her job, just promoted.
  • As you know, the stepdaughter is not incapable of independent activities such as bathing and washing her hair. She’s just receiving the undivided attention from her father for not performing those activities. With your husband, develop other activities where she can receive Dad’s attention in a more mature and independent manner. For example, purchase a small digital camera and give her the role of documenting the pregnancy and new baby. She and Dad can then develop a picture scrapbook together.
  • If needed, encourage counseling as a couple and/or family. Remember that the stepdaughter continues to operate this way because she doesn’t know what other options for attention and affection are possible. Family counseling often helps the entire family develop solutions for these difficult emotional and social passages in life.

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