Strong relationship with Mom can offset abusive father

Q: After years of verbal and emotional abuse I finally found the courage and strength to end our marriage and get away from my former husband. He never hit me, but the verbal and emotional abuse was constant and overwhelming. I could do no right, and just to make his point he swore at me most of the time.

However, my former husband is still around. The courts gave us joint custody of our two children with equal time, which means that they go back and forth between our two houses weekly. Unfortunately, the abuse my former husband threw at me is now being directed toward our oldest son. He is only 10, a great kid, and he does not deserve the barrage of garbage he is getting from his dad.

When I spoke to my former husband about his attacks on our son, he said only that he is teaching the kid to do as he is told and to learn a little bit about respect for his parents.

The guy won’t stop and my child is paying the price. My lawyer told me that family courts do not like to reopen custody matters, and that unless I have overwhelming evidence to support a call for change, the sitting judiciary are not likely to amend our custody order.

I don’t know what to do. Can you give me a hand here?

A: You certainly have every right to be concerned about the well-being of your son. Unless something happens to the contrary, the boy is likely to develop passive aggressive personality traits, meaning that he will avoid personal responsibilities, be anything except honest to those who care about him, and hide all feelings from himself and significant others in his life.

Fortunately, hope for him is around the corner. A number of years ago a team of psychologists studied the developmental histories of children being raised in the poorer sectors of Liverpool, England. They found that children could handle any number of difficult moments if they had a good relationship with at least one person in the adult world.

Translate that to your home. If you and your son develop a really good relationship, the odds are favourable that the two of you can counter-attack the damage that is potential to the abusive relationship in which he is caught with his father.

This means that you have to be Super-Mom. Don’t coddle your son, don’t try to overcome his father’s abuse by victimizing him with too much sympathy. Treat him as you would any of your children — with expectations that he will do his share around the house, that he will fall into line with regular bedtimes, meal times and study times, that he will behave properly to his sister and that he will not be sassy toward you. Of course, with those expectations goes an overwhelming and inordinate mountain of love and acceptance, all of which is unconditional.

To the extent possible, you need to ignore what is going on in your son’s father’s house. Apparently, you can do little to make things better for your son over there and it would seem that the more you try, the greater is the likelihood that you will make a bad thing worse for your boy. The best you can hope for is that your son will sign up for professional counselling and resolve some of his problems with his father in a therapeutic setting.

In the meantime, you are going to be that strict, loving Mom whose son is going to overcome his dad’s influence and embrace life with the enthusiasm you might expect from any of your children.

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