Writer and broadcaster

“I sometimes say nasty things to my little girl – I don’t mean to, but can’t help it.” Published in The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I have two daughters. The younger is two: beautiful, smiley, gets everyone to do what she wants. The elder is five: intelligent, sensitive, kind and more like me.

The problem is that I never liked me. I grew up with a lot of criticism from my parents, who thought I needed to be perfect. In certain aspects, I turned out OK, but in others I still have problems. I am almost 40 and not happy with myself. I feel very lonely and isolated, and my husband is a bit tired of me. We have a tense relationship.

I am the problem. Obviously I don’t mean to, but I treat my elder daughter badly; not physically, but I have said some nasty things or it has been the tone of my words. When we are alone, without my husband and other daughter, she is my best companion – interesting, interested and fun. But usually we are not alone. She realises I treat her and her sister differently, and so she has grown, retaining the inquisitiveness and independence she had as a baby, but with no confidence. And it is all because of me.

This evening, after a small argument with her sister, she started to cry. I asked what was wrong and she said: “Everybody hates me and loves my sister.” I reassured her, told her how wonderful she is (she is) and spent a lot of time hugging her, but now I cannot stop thinking about all the damage I have done with my behaviour. Worse, I know it can happen again. It is not because of her. It is me. But how do I stop myself? She is my daughter. It is my responsibility to help her, to protect her. How do I stop myself and make my daughter confident?

Anon, via email

Your original, longer letter was fairly difficult to read and it can’t have been easy to write. I deliberated for a long time over the reality of what was really happening – whether you are being hypercritical of your mothering skills or there actually is emotionally abusive behaviour going on.

It sounds as if your daughter has become a depository for all your neuroses and also for all that is wrong with your marriage: she has become an easy target. If so, it is extremely damaging for all of you, but my main concern is for your children, who are young and vulnerable and must be very confused by your behaviour.

As you have surmised, it is really yourself that you don’t like, not your daughter; and in treating her in this way, you are also punishing yourself.

I showed your unedited letter to Ryan Lowe, a consultant child and family therapist. She says: “You have enough insight to know you are in real difficulty, but not enough to see your way out of it. It is not an uncommon dynamic, to project the parts of yourself that you don’t care for on to the child who appears most similar to you.

“However, it does sound quite extreme and as if it might be causing distress to the elder girl and, probably, some difficulty for the younger, too, as she will be anxious about the uncomfortable dynamic between you and her elder sister and probably worried that she might be the next target.”

As Lowe points out, this isn’t just about your elder daughter – your younger one will also be learning that your love can be conditional.

“With the timeframe in mind, the best solution would be to seek parental therapy with a child psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk) who can help you, but also focus on making immediate changes for your daughter.”

“The most important thing is to see your daughter for who she is – not an embodiment of the parts of your own vulnerability and childhood that you could never stand. If you come to see the extreme vulnerability of your daughter, it might help you to find your own mothering capacity when you are overwhelmed by feelings about your own childhood.”

In the meantime, here are a couple of practical things to concentrate on: whatever negative thing you may be thinking, try not to say it to your daughter. Think: “What is this really about – me, or her, or my husband and life’s stresses?” Speak softly to her. Most importantly, prioritise time together – just you and your daughter – as this sounds a very positive experience. None of this advice is an alternative to therapy, which you should seek sooner rather than later.

First published in the Guardian Family section.