The question: For the last year my son has been living with me and my current wife. He was taken away from his biological mother's home because of physical and emotional abuse. Now my son and my wife have power struggles. Anything is a fight, even simple things like doing his chores. And it just gets worse if I try to intervene. It is hard to choose sides: my wife who I love, or my son who is my life. I can't choose, and it's harder and harder to have a good home. What can I do to fix this?
The answer: I spent a number of years working in child protection, both with parents who perpetrated abuse, as well as with child victims and their non-abusive families. The most important thing is for you to be patient and to be unconditionally there for your son. It will take him time to adjust to a new environment, but most children will test the waters for months or even years before they trust there is consistency and stability in their new environment. And remember that you also do not have to choose sides – your wife holds a certain role in your life, and your son holds another.
As you've seen with him, the impact of any kind of abuse – physical, sexual, verbal or emotional – can be devastating, particularly when it's directed toward a child during their formative years. Children manifest the impacts of abuse in myriad ways. Some tend to internalize the effects and withdraw (low mood, isolation, worry, anxiety). Physical symptoms (tummy aches, headaches, generally not "feeling well") can be common manifestations. Others tend to externalize and demonstrate mood lability – that is, up-and-down mood swings, anger, verbal (and even physical) aggression.
These behaviours, particularly aggressive behaviours, serve a self-protective goal: They protect children from being hurt again. All of these behaviours have an underlying thread of emotional pain and fear. As the abuse was perpetrated by his mother, it also is very likely that your son is experiencing difficulties in trusting female caregivers.
Your son has had his worldview of them shaped by his previous experiences. He has associated a mother figure with someone who inflicts hurt and harm, and they cannot be trusted to be nurturing and protective. This is all translates into rebellion against your wife's parenting attempts. Furthermore, he may be viewing your attempts to intervene as an implicit message that you do not understand or support him.
The way that you should approach this depends on where your son is at developmentally. Ensure that you are spending one-on-one time with him, and try to understand how is doing emotionally. If he is capable of verbalizing his behaviours, find out what is motivating them. Are there certain triggers (the words your wife uses, or non-verbal behaviours such as her tone or stance) that he is reacting to? What changes would make the relationship more comfortable for him?
Speak to your wife separately; I assume that she is not engaging in any inappropriate behaviour. Tell her that you love her and are motivated to do what you can to improve the situation between her and your son. Pay attention to whether there are behaviours she may inadvertently be engaging in that are triggering your son. She is likely – and understandably – frustrated with your son's behaviours and may be implicitly communicating her frustration. Ensure that she knows you are there to support her, as she may be feeling isolated and helpless.
Establish age-appropriate consequences for your son's behaviours. It is very natural to want to overcompensate for his biological mother's past abuse by being overly lax with consequences, but children need structure and natural outcomes to behaviours both good and bad. Contact the child protection agency that has been involved with your son to see if counselling supports are available for him – and also importantly, for your family.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network's Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV's The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .
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