My partner and I are at our wits’ end with his son. We have been together for over three years; he is a loving, loyal man and has been an excellent role model to my boys and does everything he can for his own son, who he sees every other weekend and one evening a week.
We have struggled with his son’s behaviour (he was six when we met), which can be aggressive, stroppy and demanding. His mother spoils him and he is the centre of her universe – she has never had another relationship and he is her only child.
His bad behaviour isn’t confined to his visits to us, he is also disruptive at school. His diet at home is a joke, consisting mainly of fast food, and we have struggled to get him to eat any home-cooked food. Even before we moved in together a year ago, my partner had difficulty getting his son to stay overnight with him. His mother used to insist that if he wanted to stay he had to ring her, which usually resulted in him changing his mind and going home.
I believe that they have a weird co-dependent relationship and my partner feels powerless and unimportant to his son. Six months ago we moved to a four-bedroom house specifically so my partner’s son could have his own room. At first this seemed to help, but recently things seem to be going downhill. His eating has regressed and I got upset to the point where I refused to cook for him. I now cook meals to suit us and put a cheap pizza in front of him.
We are struggling to afford going to court to get proper access rights and the child’s mother refused mediation last year. We are terrified she is brainwashing the child to the point where he believes he doesn’t want to come to us. The mother is completely unapproachable and believes she is doing no wrong.
What a very privileged position you are in. Here you are, having already raised four boys and now you can have a positive influence on a little boy who sounds very unhappy and torn. I’m not sure the mother is doing the sole job of brainwashing him “to the point where he believes he doesn’t want to come to us”. I can’t imagine it’s an entirely comfortable environment for him to be in at yours, even with his own bedroom.
I appreciate that you’ve raised four boys, but this fifth child is not yours and he needs different handling. I can’t comment on his mother’s parenting style but it’s not unusual for children to be the centre of their mother’s world. I wonder why, given that he doesn’t come to you guys very much, he can’t be the sole centre of attention at your house, even for just a bit? And why can’t he do things with just his dad? Time alone with his father is important for them both. You sound a little in competition with this young boy.
“I wonder,” suggests Ryan Lowe, a child and family therapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), “if you could get down to his level? From his point of view, his life must seem very split and he doesn’t seem to be at your house long enough to feel at home there.”
Given the feelings of judgment and distaste towards this boy, it’s not really surprising he’s defensive. He’s nine, he was six when this all started. His behaviour at school would testify to the fact that this is a very angry, frightened child.
I would counsel against court at this stage – it could get expensive and might not go in the direction you want. Mediation also won’t work if everyone goes into it thinking the other is wrong – it’s about meeting each other in the middle. It might also be an exercise to try to show less judgment and more compassion for his mother.
Your best bet, the way things stand, is to give this young boy a place he wants to be and where he feels safe. Lowe suggests: “Try to work out the little things that might make him feel more at home. Say something like: ‘What can we do to make you feel more comfortable when you come here? What do you like to eat?’ Try to make his experience at his father’s house not so alien from what it’s like at home for him.”
You can make fast food at home. And why a cheap pizza? Why not a really nice one? Why not try making pizza with him?
You are not his mother, you never will be, and you can’t undo her parenting, however much you disagree with it. But you can make a difference to this little boy. Whether it’s a positive or a negative one is up to you.
This article first appeared in Guardian Family on 4 April 2014.