Question: I don’t know what to do about my ex-husband’s relationship with our son. He is 5 and lives with me but stays with his father every other weekend and on Thursday nights. My ex has a two year old daughter with his present wife and my son is telling me that his dad is showing more interest in her than in him. He often comes home from visits with his father sad and complaining that his dad is ignoring him.


Answer: You are describing a situation that can be quite complex of course, and there are at the moment some unknowns. There are many possible reasons for your son’s perception, and his father’s behaviour. I’d like to first talk about the bigger picture in the situation, before I make some suggestions about what you might think about doing to help your son.


Divorced parents often run into some kind of conflict around the care and nurturing of children, particularly when children from a new partner’s family, and/or newborns become part of the newly-formed family systems. (Becoming a single parent is also a new system to adjust to). The children of one or both families usually spend time with both parents and this forms yet another, larger system. This is a lot to adjust to. No matter how reasonable or how well-intended the parents may be, the stress of the adjustment and their new experience of themselves can lead to less-than–ideal behaviour that can be based on a lack of knowledge and understanding. There is stress in the adjustment to loss and change, even when it is desired. Perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and so on are shaken up and parents and children may need help finding their ground again.


For a child in the now common ongoing experience of transition between homes, one of their most important needs is to feel that ideally both, or at least one caregiver, is able to communicate their curiosity and caring about what the child is experiencing, and can take some time to be completely with them, listening – every day. This kind of empathy and attentiveness is essential to the healthy development of the child’s ego-strength and resilience. Children take inside them the attitudes toward them of their caregivers and important people, like teachers and peers. For example, a child who is criticized or ignored by a parent and does not feel heard by anyone else can unconsciously internalize a feeling of themselves as bad or useless. This burden affects their relationships with everyone, including peers, and the child’s experience can becomes a vicious cycle of victimization.


I don’t have a lot of information about the whole situation with your son’s dad and step-mother, and perhaps you too need to know more. I would suggest that if at all possible you sit down with your ex and find out how he sees what’s happening. Is he aware of his son’s feelings? What is he noticing when his son is spending time with him? Has there been an incident that causes him to be more than usually concerned about his daughter? Are you seeing behaviour toward your son from your ex that you are familiar with, or is this new? Try to make sure you both get a full picture of what is happening from both of your perspectives. How well is your son eating and sleeping? Is he complaining of any physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches? Does he have regular play time with friends? How far is your ex’s home from yours and does your son have access to his community of friends in both places? How are your son and his step-mother getting along? It would be a good idea, if you haven’t already, to have him checked out by your GP or paediatrician, to rule out any physical causes. Your son has already experienced the loss of his family, and likely experienced some level of conflict between you and his father prior to your separation. He may need a lot of reassurance and time to process all that’s happened.


If you remain concerned after talking to your ex and your son, and thinking about my questions, and others you may think of, a play therapist would be able to assess how your son is coping or not. You may decide that some play therapy would help to get him back on track. In the meantime, encourage your son to express his feelings, verbally or in drawing. Young children who learn how to express their feelings and how to help themselves feel better are more likely to stay mentally healthy later on in life.



Bea Donald, M.A., R.C.C., B.C.A.M.F.T. Program Manager and Clinical Supervisor of the Family Counselling / Employee Assistance Program at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.