Dear Margo: Fallout from Divorce

My relationship with my adult daughters is strained; how do I patch things up? Margo Howard’s advice

Fallout from Divorce

Dear Margo: My adult daughters have many childhood issues. Their father was an alcoholic, and I was an enabler. My ex and I divorced when the girls were in their early 20s. Since then, my relationship with my daughters can go from quite loving to not being on speaking terms. They blame me for their unhappiness. The negativity toward me includes hurtful comments and ignoring me in public — and on occasion, the younger one attacks me on the phone for all the things she thinks I did wrong as a mother.

My attempts to talk to them about their issues fail. They don’t want to hear why I made the decisions I did. Occasionally, they get mad at one another, and then each of them is closer with me. When they are getting along, their common bond seems to be not wanting anything to do with me.

The situation now is that we are not speaking. I’ve gone to counseling a few times, mostly to learn how to cope with this situation and to get a handle on my emotions. The sessions have helped, reminding me that my happiness doesn’t depend on a good relationship with my daughters. The counselor strongly recommends family counseling. My daughters have ignored my requests to do this. I don’t know how to fix this, and it’s breaking my heart. –Tired of Crying

Dear Tired: Ah, yes … children of a broken home in their 20s. I know children like yours. Their mantra is, “The world owes me a living, and whatever is wrong is all your fault.” I have little patience for this because, in your case, the girls are rejecting family counseling in favor of attacking you, and it sounds like misplaced anger in the bargain. What likely was more damaging was living in a home with an alcoholic parent.

Do you know what I would do? Stop trying to fix things that aren’t fixable. They don’t want to listen, and they don’t want to understand. They just want to lash out at you. I would follow their lead and suggest that you become the one who is incommunicado. –Margo, realistically

A 6-Year-Old Sexpot?

Dear Margo: I know this sounds nuts, and it’s not even my business. But a group of us was at a Sunday brunch, and there was a little girl there, I swear, who was a 6-year-old sexpot. How is this possible? She was crawling up on the lap of any man who sat down, and at one point, while just standing around, it really looked as though she was masturbating. When we all left, I mentioned this to my husband, who said perhaps she’d unfortunately seen some porn on TV. I do not know her parents well enough to bring this up, but I think something is really wrong with this. What do you think? — Disturbed

Dear Dis: I think this must have been a jolt to your system, and there is definitely something wrong. A child that young has no way of knowing anything about sex, even if she’d seen some porn on TV. (If she’s seen a lot of porn, that could be a problem.)

I know this may sound almost unbelievable, but there’s a good chance that some male member of the child’s family is molesting her. This is not to say that young children, even babies, don’t touch themselves, but to be that sexualized at her age means someone is having at her. If you don’t feel comfortable bringing this up with her mother (which admittedly would be difficult, even if you were close friends), I would call the family services agency in your town and just report what you saw. You will have done as much as possible to advocate for this child. — Margo, regretfully

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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81 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Re: the little girl, it’s possible that the behavior was the kind of thing that young children engage in innocently, and some adults read into it.

    If it is just innocent yet awkward, the parents are remiss in not correcting the behavior in a neutral way, teaching her not to climb up on strangers and not to touch “private parts” in public. (I’ve seen plenty of little kids – mainly boys – absently pulling at their crotches… any kind of social correction needs to be taught and enforced early, not wait until a kid is – what – 18?)

    • avatar Anais P says:

      The description of this young girl’s actions made them not seem innocent. From what LW2 described, her actions seemed more like she was molested. Six year olds do not crawl on men’s laps and then appear to be masturbating. Margo’s advice to report this anonymously to child protective services is spot on — as usual.

      • avatar Susan JH says:

        For LW2, Margo, you are spot-on correct.  Don’t ask me how I know this, but it should be reported to children’s protective services immediately, if not sooner.  This type of behavior is indicative of a child who has learned how to get “attention” in all the wrong ways, for all the wrong reasons, and eventually (if not already) from all the wrong people.  She needs to be counselled and her parents need to be made aware of what is going on and with whom, the sooner the better.

        • avatar David Bolton says:

          CPS is likely going to ask the reporter what proof they have on which to base such suspicions—and while overt sexual behavior in a child is sometimes a sign, it is not PROOF. By following your suggestion, LW would be walking a a fine line between rescuing a child from a dangerous situation and getting sued for slander. While it would be unfortunate—she better had be right.

          False accusations of molestation don’t really fall in to the category of those things that people laugh about later at cocktail parties.

          • avatar fallinginplace says:

            @ David – reports to CPS are confidential and not subject to slander suits.  People have to be able to file reports without risk of legal repercussions, and that’s what the law provides.

          • avatar David Bolton says:

            Confidential in theory and confidential in reality are two different things.

  2. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: As someone who grew up in a family dynamic very similar to what you’ve described, I can tell you firsthand that it feels somehow “complete” (for lack of a better word) to have you as the focal point for your daughters’ hatred and negative feelings. My own mother should have left my father years before she did—when it finally came, it was the coda that arrived just a tad too late. By that point, my mother had allowed my father’s numerous infidelities to coax her into having several of her own (which started her drinking problem), and his financial mismanagement destroyed what she had spent decades carefully building (which exacerbated her drinking problem). My mother will have been dead ten years this spring—and I’m still mad at her for allowing that, and dragging my brother and me into the emotional chaos that followed. But not as mad as I remain at my father—who managed to emerge from it relatively unscathed, and who then decided to put on his responsible pants when he met his latest wife.

    I really don’t know what to tell you to fix this situation—but I disagree with Margo in that it’s not the attitude that the world owes your children a living which is the problem. It’s that you created and perpetuated a really screwed-up dynamic (which is likely permanent) for your children by staying in your marriage. Maybe you should start there (if you haven’t already) and ask your children if they would like to go their separate ways from you. Forever. Putting forth such an idea in blunt, unwavering and permanent terms will hopefully give you an answer and allow you to move forward with them, or to move on.

    LW2: I read this letter and came away feeling conflicted and unclean. One: it’s not “nuts” to stumble across the possibility that a child has been molested—hypersexualization is a classic indicator of such, and it probably happens more often than you realize. Two: calling a child a term like “sexpot” makes me view you in less-than-flattering terms. “Idiot” comes to mind.

    Perhaps it’s just the way that the letter was written—but I sincerely hope that someone witnessing this kind of behavior from a young child wouldn’t react in such a water-cooler-ya’ll-ain’t-gonna-believe-what-I-done-seen manner.

    • avatar CatA says:

      I wouldn’t call LW2 an “idiot” but her labeling the child a “sexpot” shows her limitations – she might have been at a total loss of terms for this.  Of course, what the writer described is disquieting and possibly should be reported to Child Protective Services for investigation.  On the other hand, it might be harmless.  If the writer has contact with the family, she might take another opportunity to observe them again to see if the behavior is a pattern or not. If it is, she will need a pair of those “responsibility pants” and should file a report with the CPS.  Unless this was just prurient water-cooler-discussion fodder, as you’ve suggested. Let’s hope not…

    • avatar sparktest says:

      LW#1:  What David Bolton said.

    • avatar April says:

      ask your children if they would like to go their separate ways from you. Forever. Putting forth such an idea in blunt, unwavering and permanent terms will hopefully give you an answer and allow you to move forward with them, or to move on.

      Even though the last line makes it obvious to me, I would emphasize to the LW that she should ask this question *and* be willing to accept that the answer might be “yes” the children want to separate. She should not ask this question thinking, “It will shock them so much that we will work towards reconciliation.”

  3. avatar Florafloraflora says:

    I have a different take on the six-year-old sexpot. I hesitate to say this for fear of encouraging some pedophile, but I too was a precociously sexual child. At age six I found some of my dad’s porn (a novel–I was a precocious reader) and read most of it. I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on but I knew I was definitely intrigued. I can’t rule out the possibility that a (developmentally disabled) relative may have taken a sexual interest in me early on, but there was no inappropriate touching. I had my first sexual thought at age three while watching a wholesome TV show. I also began entering puberty around age six. [Side note to pedophiles: none of this meant that I was ready for sexual contact. You are still scum.] I was an early bloomer, but hardly unique; plenty of kids play Doctor and other games at that age. 

    I would hate to give an abuser any cover, but it’s possible that the six-year-old who disturbed your letter writer was like me, just having impulses that were ahead of her time. Her parents may be well aware of her actions and just choosing not to make a big deal of it to avoid inducing shame. Bringing in any authorities could save the girl from an abuser, but it could also screw up her developing sense of self at a tricky time. Ultimately your writer knows the situation best and has to decide what to do. I’m just putting another possibility out there to suggest that it might not be crazy to start by making a casual comment to the girl’s mother about her precocious behavior. Unfounded allegations of abuse can really shake a family. It might not be a bad idea to learn a little more about the situation before calling in the big guns. 

    • avatar V says:

      I agree.  There are so many people calling out sexual abuse when there is none and people’s lives are ruined because of it.  I am not an advocate of CPS.  They have “killed” plenty of children under their supposed “care”.  For goodness’ sake, MAN-UP and SAY something to the mom or dad.  That’s what parents are for.  I am not a fan of Margo’s advice to call CPS instead of talking to the parents first.  There’s been many many news reported of CPS screwing families up because of a simple misunderstanding and you never hear CPS apologize for it even if the death is caused by placing the care of the infant or children under an unfit foster home.

      • avatar stateoflove_N_Trust says:

        There is a selection bias in what you hear because you do not hear about all the good things CPS does to save kids from a bad situation.  Those records are not available to the general public.  CPS agencies are not perfect and there are some that I would say are terrible, but I think most do a pretty good job.  There are some really terrible parents out there.

  4. avatar Dana Griffiths says:

    LW2: Please get up the nerve to speak to the mother before social services. Once SS gets a tip, by law they have to act on it, and continue to investigate. The child could, in all likelihood, be taken from the family during this investigation. The impact on this family could be devastating.

  5. avatar toni says:

    I agree with the two previous posters that CPS is premature. (and also that labeling her a sexpot reveals more about the LW than the girl.) I think one could even have gone up to the girl and asked if she needed to use the bathroom. If she didn’t, just smile and in a low key way say, then sweetie you need to wash your hands and stop doing that.
    It was about that age when I was told I was too heavy to sit on laps – which made me want nothing more!! Instead of scarily precocious, the behavior sounds to me more scarily regressed.

    Re LW1: Margo the lw made no reference to her daughters’ work ethic – although I agree that entitlement is pandemic. 20s is still very young, and the lw agrees they’ve been through the ringer. Instead of ultimatums or demanding they go to therapy, just be there like Switzerland when they do need you, and refuse to tolerate their dysfunction when they dump on you – with a healthy No Blame boundary setting even if it means saying, We’ll talk when you feel better – and hanging up.

  6. avatar toni says:

    Went back and reread LW1. Margo I usually agree with you but I feel like you missed an important clue “My attempts to talk to them about their issues fail and they don’t want to hear about why I made the decisions I did”
    So. She’s nagging them about their issues (which she and hubby caused) and rationalizing her own behavior. Then hits them up with demands they go to therapy – when she isn’t even taking responsibility for her own actions. I think she needs more therapy.

    • avatar Kriss says:

      I thought the same thing.  She’s not hearing them & their complaints & she’s too busy trying to justify her actions from the past.  As long as they think she’s trying to excuse her own behavior & dismiss their hurt, they aren’t going to be receptive to her.

    • avatar Jessica J says:

      Exactly–she needs to go through twelve steps herself. I wonder if she’s ever actually thought about what she did to her kids. It certainly doesn’t sound as though she has any remorse for the childhood she put them through; she’s just upset they aren’t willing to pretend it didn’t happen. I think she’ll find that the problems go away when she goes to AA or the equivalent for her situation and faces facts. Frankly, as an enabler, she functioned in much the same role to her kids as the alcoholic himself, so AA would probably work just fine.

  7. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: You’ve admitted having been an enabler, but unfortunately we all reap what we sow. I’d try for personal counseling and then make one request for family counseling. If that’s a no-go, then you’ll have at least tried to mend fences a bit.

    L #2: What Margo said.

  8. avatar Lisa Cornell says:

    Re LW#2 I can’t believe the posters here are attacking the letter writer about the term sexpot and suggesting it says more about the letter writer than the girl. Really? She was trying to refer to it in polite terms. Would it be better if she had suggested the girl is trying out for role of town slut at the ripe age of six. The fact that the girl’s parents are impervious to her behavior speaks volumes about them and their family dynamic, not the letter writer. Margo’s advice is spot on. Report it and realize she has done all she can in the situation.

    LW#1 Margo again is spot on. As someone who could have chosen to stay angry for childhood issues and failures on my parent’s part, I chose to get therapy, stick with it, come to terms with my issues, move forward and develop a healthy, respectful relationship with my parents. All too often posters and letter writers go on and on how they have managed to stay angry for most of their lives because of childhood hurts and injustices. Margo continues to espouse therapy and most people poo poo it. The truth is, therapy can work, but it takes work and time. The problem is, we live in a world where we expect instant rewards. It ain’t gonna happen when complex feelings of betrayal, mistrust, and anger control our lives. Every week or so we read about another person for one reason or another has managed to make it to middle-age who has never dealt with their issues, wonder why they can’t forge strong, healthy relationships with family, friends, co-workers , and even neighbors. It is precisely because they have never made the effort to fix themselves and they reject the notion that they have any role to play in the continuing drama between themselves and everyone around them. In the immortal words of St Luke,”physician heal thyself”.

    • avatar Carib Island Girl says:

      Lisa, you obviously have never been part of a dysfunctional abusive childhood, you don’t know what you are talking about. See most of the other posts on the subject, including mine.

  9. avatar Briana Baran says:

    Re: L#1: We only have mom’s side of the story. Wonderful that she feels that she has moved on and cleared the air for herself, and that she knows what she needs for HER happiness. But the wounds may still be very raw for the children that her husband the alcoholic, and she, the enabler, damaged in over twenty years of misery and abuse (yes, being in a situation like that is abusive). So she’s gone to counseling a few times, mostly to get a handle (if I’m reading her syntax correctly) not on her culpability in damaging her children…but on their refusal to A): allow her to discuss and dissect THEIR issues, and B): allow her to explain (perhaps make excuses for? She never mentions feeling the least bit responsible or sorry for the hurt she caused) the reasons for her decisions.

    Of course, they should immediately jump on her bandwagon so that she’ll feel good about herself. After all, she doesn’t need THEM to be happy, she actually stated this. It’s her turn now. I suppose that she’s neglected to remember all the years they were trapped between her and the drunk she helped stay that way. If the divorce is recent, she’s free, and as young adults so are they, but they had no childhood at all, and it can take years for the adult children of alcoholics to be “free”. They haven’t recovered yet…and she doesn’t seem to care a bit. It’s all about her. “Entitled”? No. Angry and hurt and rightfully so. I think that they should cut HER loose.

    Re:L#2: “Sexpot” is a term generally used to define a young ***woman*** who is sexually attractive…not promiscuous or, in this case, a sexually precocious child. LW2 may be way off base here…but then, everyone seems to be eager to call in CPS or the equivalent. Not all sexually molested children behave this way…in fact, many are withdrawn, socially awkward, and afraid of those who are of the same gender as their molester(s).

    Also, little girls, as well as boys, will masturbate. They do it when they need to urinate, but they also do it because it feels good, and as a comfort mechanism. In very Western countries, we look on this as unacceptable behavior. In other places, it is frequently ignored (remember, in some Christian denominations, and certain Orthodox sects of Judaism, it’s a sin or an act of self-abuse, and proscribed as unclean because it isn’t a sexual act of procreation). As for climbing into men’s laps…this could be a bid for attention, she may, as another post suggested, just have been told she’s too big for this activity and is testing her parents’, or she may be engaging in pre-erotic behavior.

    Some children experience sexual feelings and thoughts very early, and it isn’t because they’ve been molested. Molestation can lead to the opposite…arrested sexual development. LW2 doesn’t know the family, and has no real idea what is going on with the child. I would certainly ask other people who might have more familiarity with them in a non-confrontational manner, perhaps sans terms like “sexpot”, if the child is always so affectionate with men. She might learn something to ease her mind…or that others are concerned…with reason.

  10. avatar D C says:

    David Bolton:  “Two: calling a child a term like “sexpot” makes me view you in less-than-flattering terms. “Idiot” comes to mind.”

    When did it become OK for posters in here to attack each other?  It’s happening more and more.  If you don’t agree with something someone said, then just say you don’t agree.  Name calling is childish and unacceptable.  There are others in here who flash their fangs and pounce in overreaction. 

    I know I may be naive to expect this place to be somewhere where intelligent discourse and exchange of opinions and ideas can be done, but I really did.  That’s how it is presented at least.  If the people who post in here cannot bring themselves up to that level, then maybe they should go elsewhere to attack, like a political blog — it’s expected there. 

    David, I usually like what you have to say, but you are out of line calling another poster an idiot just because you don’t agree with their opinion.       

    • avatar R Scott says:

      DC – He was referring to the LW not another poster.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      DC, I didn’t call another poster an idiot. And I didn’t directly call LW2 an “idiot” either—I said that her approach to writing her letter made me think of her in that context.

      And I DO agree with you about name-calling, however—sometimes a spade is a spade and I’m not going to be afraid to say such. Regarding LW2, I concur with many of the posts that the girl’s behavior could be attributable to a number of scenarios. None of these scenarios require writing an “omigosh-I’m-so-titillated” letter to Margo, and at least one of them requires some action on the part of an adult. All of the scenarios require some careful thought on LW2’s part before making a decision to act, should she choose to do so. I would hope that she carefully takes the time to think about what she could—and SHOULD do—and weigh options before doing such, because she could permanently affect some lives here. And she should certainly give it more time and effort and thought than it took for her to come up with “sexpot.”

      • avatar D C says:

        Yes, I was wrong on who was the target of the term “idiot”.  However… can we agree on the idea that most people who write letters to Margo are, quite possibly, posters themselves?  I wrote one a long time ago, after being a reader/poster for a while. 

        Whether or not a letter writer is seriously asking a question they need an answer to, or are just throwing a wild hair question out to see what happens, my concern is that this particular forum sometimes looks like a shark tank and opinions are like live bait in the water.  Some sharks just take a big fast bite, while others nibble on and on… and on, explaining how smart they are and how utterly stupid you are.  Mean girls is what it is at times, and that issue was discussed recently as well.  

        I think that’s the reason this site has gone so far down from what it was.  The people who started it got tired of all the mean and moved on to more uplifting endeavors.  

        I suppose this all boils down to being tired of mean.  I need to move my office space away from that woman across the way.  I hear it all day from her, and then I come here for escape and it’s the same thing.  

        ***Sigh*** it’s my day off.  I have chores to do.  Back to the dishes and laundry. 

        • avatar David Bolton says:

          I agree with you DC, and I’ve tried to tone down some of my own name-calling because I get sick of seeing the same back-and-forth sniping that goes on between people on here who obviously hate each other. Unfortunately it’s the nature of the beast that some posters will get butt hurt when someone else says that the advice they gave is awful. And some posters go on the offensive and attack everything from the most innocuous things a poster may have said, to the length of their post, how many times they post, whether or not they find some personal insight in the OP—or my pet peeve, what awful advice that Margo sure gives, and how she must be carrying on the tradition from her mother. Indeed, I hope people like that go away and never come back. Ultimately, the reason why I post here at all is because I need to learn how to accept the viewpoints of others, and I also could stand to learn some wisdom from others who have experiences that I do not. Indeed, for that very reason there have been OPs where I posted nothing because I didn’t feel that I had anything useful or valuable to contribute. And there are OPs where I have posted a lot.

          This can be a fun place to see some interesting viewpoints, as long as the majority tends to view it that way. Bad apples do spoil the whole cart, because judgmental posts from one have a tendency to bring out judgmental posts in others. I just wish that every OP would give feedback—those tend to be the best, most interesting posts of all.

          And one thing I’ve tried to do recently is be devil’s advocate on some posts, simply because I do believe it’s important to see both sides of the equation. Do I believe that LW2 is an awful person? No, and I don’t mean to imply such. But I do think that she comes across as aware-yet-not-savvy.

        • avatar Briana Baran says:

          @D C: David Bolton said this: “…And some posters go on the offensive and attack everything from the most innocuous things a poster may have said, to the length of their post, how many times they post, whether or not they find some personal insight in the OP…”