Divorced dad seeks advice on saving relationship with son

Recently, I received this letter from a divorced man seeking guidance about a troubling dynamic involving his young son:

“I have an 8-year-old son. His mother and I had a nasty breakup almost two years ago. I filed to establish paternity and ultimately to get shared parenting or joint custody. His mother bad-mouthed me to him so much that he refused to speak to me and would run the other way when he saw me.

His mother comes from a large family and I have no relatives or family support in the area. I mention this because I suspect there may be some ill will from the breakup and my son spends a lot of time with her family. Long story short, through counseling and court, things have gotten better for my son and me. However, there are still many unresolved issues that stem from the several months he refused to speak to me.”

I imagine it’s very difficult to experience the lack of support you describe.

Though I don’t know all of the circumstances compelling others to respond as they have, harder still is the possibility that others may have discouraged your son from having a positive attachment to you. This concerns me because children derive so much of their self-worth from the experience of identifying with each of their parents.

As troubling as this is, my best advice to you is to remember that we cannot govern how others (the other adults in your child’s life) will behave or speak. We may seek to limit their influence and may be annoyed at the possible unfairness of it all, but I believe that your best defense is your son’s own experience of you.

Your son’s impressions of you will continue to develop over time. Eventually, he will come to his own conclusions about who you really are. I know these are painful times, but I encourage you to take the high road and focus on how you can make your interactions with your son as positive and loving as possible.

Be consistent when parenting him and really try to let the rest go. It won’t always be easy, but try. Your son may decide for himself, in his own time, who was “right,”but remember, this isn’t his job.

In any case, in my experience, the truth is usually somewhere in the murky middle.

That said, whenever you do encounter your son, resist the temptation to try and convince him that others are wrong about you. In fact, I would encourage you only to speak well of his other relatives, when you do speak of them, in spite of the negative energy you imagine they may convey to him about you. Behaving in any other way is self-serving, and only puts a young child in the middle of something he cannot and should not have to understand.

If you cannot communicate positive feelings about the others he loves (and needs to love and trust, if he’s to be with them for any length of time), at least be neutral.

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