I've been divorced for more than three years. My 10-year-old son, who has dyslexia, came home one night in distress because his father yelled at him. My son could not understand his father when he tried to explain how to do his homework. This is not the first time my ex has said negative things about my son. During our marriage, he was verbally and emotionally abusive. It took years of counselling to restore my self-esteem. I don't want my son to grow up believing what his father says about him. What can I do? I don't want to go back to court.
You are rightly concerned about the long-term effect this might have on your son's self-esteem. From the information you provided, this seems to be more than a one-off occurrence.
But children are resilient to a degree, especially if at least one parent is emotionally mature, able to show empathy, and is consistent in his/her own parenting.
I am glad to hear that you don't want to go back to court. I often remind parents that if you can't change the other parent during the marriage, it is even less likely you will able to change him/her afterwards.
It might seem unfair that your child has to go through this uncalled-for criticism, but life is hardly fair. You son is learning this lesson much sooner than others, and you could turn it into a life lesson for him.
Things don't have to turn nasty. You will not be able to change your ex, but a few things might help as damage control for your son. Change your own frame of reference, and start to call your ex "my son's father" instead. This change is symbolic of your relationship to that person. Changing how you refer to that person is the first step towards changing your attitude to him.
If you feel comfortable discussing it, ask your son if he wants to share his feelings. Sometimes children just want to get something off their chest.
To protect your child, you may need to point out that his father used inappropriate language. Your son will benefit if you can give him some tips on how to cope with his father's criticism and anger.
You could say: "Son, I know it hurt when your dad said that you were stupid just because you didn't understand his explanation. Sometimes he is not very good at explaining things in a way that you might understand, and he can get frustrated quickly. I am sure he loves you, and he only said that because he lost his temper.
"Sometimes adults and children say things we don't mean, and hurt others in the process. Maybe when your daddy is back to his normal self, you could explain to him that you don't like him calling you stupid."
Let the father know, by e-mail, that his behaviour has affected your son, but do not expect immediate change. With the passage of time, people can change, when they feel that it is their decision.
You could say: "Our son told me you said he was stupid, and he was really upset. I know sometimes it takes a while to explain certain concepts to him; if you are not getting through, you could leave the homework for me to do with him.
"You only see him for a short time, that gives you very little time to mend your relationship with him, and to explain that you are only saying that when you are frustrated."
Remember, you are saying it because you care about your son, not because you want to score points or change his father.
Don't expect him to listen, validate your opinion or support you. The reason I suggested e-mail is that it will give him time to think. The key to divorce parenting is to avoid conflict and remain focused on what is best for the child.
An experience with another male may be all you need to show to your son that men can be empathetic and patient. You will find that boys need male role models as they grow up.
If the father's behaviour and values are not the best examples for your son, look around and see if you can find someone who your son can look up to.
Let go after you have done what you can. As child psychologist Anthony Wolf says: "In the end, you need to let your children play out their relationship with their other parent - for better or for worse - on their own."
Being a single parent is not easy, and being the only mature parent is even harder. Be kind to yourself and make sure you have support. This might be the best gift you can give your son. Lora Lee is a child therapist and parenting counsellor with a background in developmental psychology, play therapy and post-separation counselling