Q: I read your article about parental alienation. I have been dealing with my son’s father for several years now. All along, I've stood my ground, been open to allowing our son to have his own opinion, and somehow not given in to defending myself to my child. It does worry me that constantly hearing these negative comments will somehow damage my son in the future. I follow the guidelines in your article pretty consistently. Is there something else I could be doing to smooth the edges?
A: Thanks so much for writing. First and foremost, let me commend you for the way you have handled this challenging situation thus far. Your son is lucky indeed to have you as a clear, conscious, and compassionate role model.
Please don't underestimate the power of ONE healthy relationship in the life of a child. Your respectful and honest dynamic with him will set the standard by which he will evaluate all other relationships. In particular, honoring that he has a right to his own opinion is tremendously important.
As he grows older, he will form his own opinion of who you are, based on his experience with you. This will be different from his father's opinion. And what usually happens when a child realizes that his own experience of a parent is quite different from his other parent's experience? He starts to look at the parent who is negative or disparaging through a different lens - sort of like, Gee dad, what's your problem with Mom? She seems great to me!
Your son will say that internally, of course, at first. He may never speak it out loud to his dad, and that's okay. As the gulf between their perceptions grows, if his father cannot make room for him to have his own opinion about you, he will put his own relationship with your son at risk. But he won't be able to affect your relationship with your son. That's your domain, not his.
So please keep doing what you are already doing. In my experience, as kids grow older, they tolerate less and less of the BS. His dad's comments are landing on an ever-developing brain -- one that is becoming more rational and more reasonable with each passing day. So although your son may be hearing negative comments often, they never land in the same gray matter. (Just like that Heraclitus quotation about it being impossible to step in the same river twice.)
As your son's brain matures, his thinking is moving toward shades of gray rather than simply black and white. He won't accept spoon-fed ideas for much longer. He'll spit them back out -- all over whoever was trying to force him to swallow them.
Your son will continue to need plenty of freedom to express himself when he's with you. He will need to know that it's okay with you for him to love his dad ... warts and all. He may also need tons of empathy for the confusion he might be feeling about the disparity between what his dad thinks of you and what he himself thinks of you. He will need you to listen -- without judgment, without intervention, and without fixing his problems.
During non-dad oriented conversations, you can help your son to enlarge his worldview by responding to diverse opinions like this: Sure honey, everyone is absolutely entitled to their own perspective! You, me, the next door neighbor, your dad, your teacher ... we each have different perspectives, and it's our differences that make life so interesting. Whenever I hear an opinion that is a lot different from mine, I think to myself Hmmm, that's an interesting way to look at this! Then I double check my own opinion to see if I want to change it. If I decide that I like my opinion just the way it is, I keep it and let the other person do the same thing. If I decide to change my mind, then I do!
Statements like this give your son a way to manage the contrast between you and his dad without splitting himself in half or closing off his heart.
I say once again, your son is blessed to have such a wise and loving mother! This situation can be incredible challenging for us as parents, so please make sure you have an empathetic and nurturing support person on call for yourself to help you release your feelings. And take extra good care of yourself, remembering to take the time you need to recharge your own battery.
ps: You can find the parental alienation post she is referring to, along with several other posts about divorce and joint custody, here: http://www.advice-for-parents.com/search/label/divorce%2Fjoint%20custody
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