Dear Dr. Meg,
I think my ex-wife is emotionally abusing our 7-year-old son, just like she verbally and emotionally abused me when we were married. I’ve been in and out of court almost two dozen times since she moved out in 2012, and from what I’ve read, she seems to have a lot of the classic characteristics of borderline personality disorder and of the adult child of an alcoholic.
For about the past year she’s been pushing the idea that our son has ADHD, but I think that’s just so she can medicate him into behaving better at her house (since he behaves fine at mine).
She lavishes affection and compliments on his older sister, but practically ignores him unless he misbehaves. I feel like I have to work twice as hard at parenting just to make up for her antics.
Do you have any suggestions on how to protect my son from his mother?
A Concerned Dad
Your ex-wife sounds like she doesn’t like men. I do not know where this came from but many women who were hurt by their fathers end up demeaning men and their sons. This can be very destructive to children. Unfortunately, you cannot change her. And unless you see that she is committing frank abuse toward your children, you cannot change custody arrangements. This leaves you and your children in a tough spot.
With you out of her home, your children have to deal with her alone and you cannot control what happens in her home. You can, however, control what you do and there are some things you can do to help negate the hurt that comes from her.
First, regarding the ADHD, make sure that you go to the pediatrician with her and your son or even alone. You need to tell the doctor what you see. Also, ask his teachers what they see. A good doctor is not going to prescribe medication from just one person’s opinion. There is testing that should be done to make the diagnosis of ADHD before medication is prescribed, and you need to make sure that is done.
Let’s discuss the difficult issue. You say that your wife is verbally and emotionally abusing your son and you may be right. You can’t stop her from doing that outright but you can do some things to help deflect the hurt. First, try to be nice to her. I know that this is the last thing you want to do, but if she recognizes that you are both on the same team as parents, she will be more willing to be nice to your son if you act nice to her. Remember, she hates men. So do the opposite of what she expects and try your best to communicate that you believe that she can be and is a good mother. I’m sure that there are some things that she does well as a mother so compliment her on those. This sounds manipulative, but it isn’t. You can either focus on her bad parenting behaviors or her good ones. If you focus on the good ones in her company, she will be more willing to work with you.
Second, never criticize her to your children. This takes tremendous self-control, but you can do it. I am not saying that they should accept verbal abuse as normal, but your job is to keep both children from being defensive about their mother. When you criticize her, they run to her defense and will not listen to you. Instead, ask them how things went at their mom’s house. Ask how they feel when they are there and do not prod them. Listen, if your son tells you that his mother said something nasty to him, you can say something like, “Son, I’m so sorry Mom said that. It must have really hurt. Did it?” Then, give him time to answer your question.
After he has responded, tell him that his mother doesn’t mean to say cruel things and that she says things that aren’t true. Tell him that when she says them, he must learn to tune her out in his head. You can practice this with him. Then try to separate her from her anger. Tell him that his mother has an anger problem like some people have cancer. It is an illness but isn’t really his mother talking. This will free him to believe that his mother can love him but that anger inside of her is mean to him. Right now, he may feel that his mother just hates him and that he is a bad kid
If you repeat these conversations as time goes by, he will begin to see that his mother’s anger issues get dumped on him not because his mother doesn’t love him or because he’s a bad kid, but because the anger is just there. Separate the anger from her and this helps free him to love her.
This is tough stuff and there are no easy answers. In the long run, as he gets older, you will need to be prepared to help him unravel some of the hurts but this probably won’t come until he is in his late teens or early twenties.