My kid desperately wants to be like his father (my ex-husband) but his father is not a good role model. What can I do?
It would be best if she tried to act neutral and avoided saying outright negative things about the ex-spouse. As the child gets older, he’s likely to figure out what kind of person his father is on his own from observing his father’s behavior.
MOLLY: This question was asked by a mother in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She explained that she is divorced and wants to tell her 9-year old son that he is loved by his dad and that he of course should love his dad, too, but that his father does not always model good behavior due to his drug use and dishonesty, among other things. She doesn’t want to turn her son against his father, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want her son to emulate him either. What should she do?
DR. RUTHERFORD: I don’t think she needs to tell her son to love his dad; that’s really for him to work through. Her job here is to avoid saying negative remarks about her child’s father.
If she is critical of the boy’s father, it will backfire on her as the child will dig in and defend his father to the end. And he will likely also stop talking to her about his dad.
Instead, if she remains neutral, her son will feel freer to express both positive and negative feelings about his dad’s behavior as he witnesses it and experiences the effects.
As the child gets older, he’s likely to want talk to his mother about things he sees and experiences the father doing if he feels safe doing so with her. Her job is to be sympathetic to her son; as events unfold,she shouldn’t ever deny what the father has done but should instead focus on being supportive of the son as he sorts out his relationship with his father.
MOLLY: When should she tell him the truth about his father?
DR. RUTHERFORD: The best time for that is when her son actually asks for the information. While the truth can very important for children to understand, the timing of divulging such information is just as important in terms of the child’s age and if he’s ready to deal with the information. He might not ask for this information until he is a teen, in his twenties, or even older. She should answer her son’s questions about his father honestly and sensitively when they come while remembering that children do not necessarily need to know all of the sordid details about their parents’ bad behavior.
MOLLY: What if the child witnesses some bad behavior, and reports back to his mom. For instance, “Daddy drinks a lot.”
DR. RUTHERFORD: This is when it’s important that you are honest with your child. Denying the child’s perception of reality is not a good thing because it makes him doubt his own perceptions. If the child is 9 or 10 years old, the mother could answer, “Yeah, I think so too. He loves you very much but he is trying to deal with his problems.”
When the child is a teenager, there’s no denying what’s going on. Kids are smart and observant so I think the important thing is to be honest. Negotiating your child’s relationship with someone over whom you have no control can be challenging, but we do have control over our own behavior. This mom can do the best she can for her son by modeling good behavior herself, not talking badly about her ex-, listening to her son with a sympathetic ear when he needs to talk about his dad, and being available to support her son.