Sunday 22 October 2017

Dear David Coleman: I'm afraid my son is being turned against me by his father. He lets him do whatever he likes

One parent allows a child unlimited access to social media. Photo posed
One parent allows a child unlimited access to social media. Photo posed

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I've never lived with my 10-year-old son's father. He is controlling and hostile. However, after court battles, my son spends about half his time with him. His father allows him unlimited access to TV, Internet and social media. He does no homework and eats junk. Needless to say I seem like a cruel, strict mammy when I set limits. His father's family say nasty things about me and my relationship with my son is suffering. My son, unsurprisingly, says he wants to live with his dad and I am so afraid I'll lose him.

David replies: I think you should stick to your guns. As long as your limits and expectations of your son are balanced by understanding, warmth and responsiveness, you are giving him exactly what he needs for his optimum development.

In terms of parenting style, if this is your approach, you would be considered to be an authoritative parent ­- one who is not afraid to be the boss when needed, but is kind about how any limits get imposed.

In contrast, your son's dad ­- from your description - sounds like he adopts a permissive or indulgent style of parenting. This isn't the worst approach, but, typically, children who have been indulged struggle with limits imposed by others since they have never really been told "no".

The danger for you is that you might be keen on limit-setting and have high expectations of what your son should or shouldn't do, but not be responsive to his needs. In other words, if you just expect him to dance to your tune, without ever considering what his tune is, you may be authoritarian in your approach. This might engender obedience, but it can often stifle creativity and independent thinking in children.

Sternness, in parenting, always has to be balanced by warm emotional connection, where we can show our children, through touch, caring activities, playfulness and sharing interests, that we love them.

Either way, you and his dad obviously have massively different approaches to dealing with him and no apparent means of communicating with each other about that. While neither of you can dictate to the other how your son must be parented, he does need some level of consistency in approaches.

Without that, he can play each of you against the other. In some ways, his threat to go live with his dad might be his attempt to manipulate you to soften some of your limits.

It might be tempting to try to win him over, to ensure he doesn't reject you, but in doing so you would probably be doing him a disservice. Kind and firm parenting is what all children need. Indulgent parenting, where children lack limits and structure, can have lasting negative impacts on their ability to relate to others and to function well in society.

So, I'd suggest to you that you find some way to bring influence to bear on his dad. Is there anyone in his extended family who is positive towards you that you might find someone willing to talk to him about the danger of his laissez-faire attitude to his son?

I can't imagine he'd accept your opinion, but if he could hear it from someone else, it might allow him to heed it and even act on it.

Frightening though it may seem, I'd hope that you wouldn't lose your relationship with your son. I know many people who have looked back, with the benefit of their adult perspective, at the hated rules and limits that their parents imposed, or tried to impose, and seen the value in them.

At the time they railed against their "harsh", "strict" parents. Later they realised that their parents were right about lots of things. So if you are being authoritative at home, then stick with it. Even if your son complains now, I think he will appreciate it later.

Get yourself some support to be able to have courage in your convictions and have faith in him that he will be able to see past the indulgence of his dad to realise that real parental love involves saying "no" about as often as it might involve saying "yes".

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