Family life: Should I tell my son why his father won't see him?
Q: I am a single parent. My youngest child is 11 years old and his father is a farmer. I have known for quite some time that my son was driving tractors in the family business, but I truly believed that it was only happening at the home farm and being monitored carefully.
My son is in the care of his father on the farm every weekend. Recently I discovered that he has been driving on public roads but had never told me. I was shocked to hear this news. I was so angry I reported the incident to my local garda station to learn that they could do nothing about it. My only path then was to restrict my son's time with his dad. His father has since refused to see him, saying that unless things return to how they were he will not see him. His father refuses to accept responsibility for any of this, saying our son was quite safe and nothing happened. My questions to you are how can I keep my son safe if his father refuses to see the dangers that he constantly puts him in? Also, what is the best way for me to explain to my son the reason for his dad's attitude and now absence from his life? Currently my son feels his daddy obviously doesn't love him, and really only wanted him to work for him so he didn't have to pay someone to do it. It's very confusing for him.
A: Of course it is difficult for your son to make sense of this. He is only 11 and his relationship with his dad is being used by both of his parents as a tool to fight each other. Even for an adult this is hard to understand and accept.
Let's look at what is happening: you are angry with his dad for putting your son in danger.
You restrict his time with his dad which is, de facto, a punishment for his dad for being irresponsible. However, it is actually a greater punishment for your son.
Similarly, by taking the hump with you and stopping seeing his son altogether, his dad is trying to tell you that you are not the boss but all he ends up doing is punishing his son and not you.
You and your ex-husband both have to share the responsibility for using your son as a pawn in your disagreements.
If you want to explain the situation fully to your son then you have to let him know that unfortunately this isn't even about him. It is actually about you and his dad trying to show each other who is in charge and who will make decisions about him.
This may alleviate some of his feelings of letting his dad down, or being used by his dad or not being loved by his dad.
It may also, understandably, leave him feeling cross with both of you for manipulating his relationship with his dad to your own ends.
I think you need to let your son have his usual access with his dad and then take your disagreement to his dad directly.
I am not sure from your query whether you are able to talk with his father about these issues in any meaningful way.
From what I can gather, if you have tried talking to him about it he becomes defensive and shuts down the conversation.
Perhaps his father is aware of the danger that he has put your son in and feels guilty about it but just doesn't want to be blamed by you.
If he feels you have 'something on him' it may just infuriate him that you somehow have the upper hand in the relationship.
Indeed, you may feel you have the slightly higher moral ground, in as much as your son's dad went against health and safety regulations by letting your son drive the tractor at all and, more worryingly, drive it on a public road.
Don't forget, however, that you have been aware for some time that the regulations were being broken and you tacitly approved of it by letting your son continue driving on the farm. You need to fully accept your own irresponsibility before attacking your ex-husband.
To defuse the situation I think you need to acknowledge, with his dad, that both you and he have been in the wrong and that now you would like to do things better.
If you have finally decided that you can't stand over your son driving a tractor then that is okay but you need to discuss this directly with his dad and not use your son as leverage.
If you feel that your efforts to convince his dad to stop letting your son drive are not effective then try to bring in other people to support you.
Perhaps his mother or brother or anyone influential in his life might allow his dad to gain some insight and help to change his behaviour but also maintain his pride without having to acquiesce to your viewpoint.
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he can't enter into personal correspondence.