Q: My ex favors my 9-year-old daughter and occasionally will deride my 12-year-old son (for example, calling him a "drama king" for having strong emotions and "weird" for having some minor preference he doesn't agree with). This is part of the reason for my initiating divorce, but can you help me handle this behavior when it hurts both my children? My daughter tends to take my ex's side until I correct her ("I don't want to hear you call your brother a 'drama king' — strong feelings are okay"). My son will have a period after episodes like this where he is pretty down on himself. My kids are both in counseling and have been for a while, so that's good. Any thoughts?
A: I'm so sorry your ex is choosing favorites. (I can't tell from this question whether your ex is a biological parent or a stepparent, but my thoughts pertain to both. I will write this as if your ex is the other biological parent.)
What you are describing is far more than choosing favorites; I would argue that your ex is bullying and/or verbally abusing your son. Name-calling is not okay, and it is especially galling that he is getting bullied for expressing an emotion.
He is 12 and soon may be able to choose not to spend much time with his other parent, but this is an issue for you and your lawyers to work through. I am hesitant to suggest that a child not see his mother or father, but I will recommend that you keep looking into your legal options. Keep a thorough email record of the name-calling and the emotional toll it is taking on both children.
You have two issues here: One is the verbal abuse and subsequent depression/anxiety of your son, and the other is that your daughter is caught between the name-calling and her allegiance to her other parent. Both are difficult, and I'm glad you have your kids in counseling. Please assess whether the counseling is adequate; the relationship between a counselor and child is a delicate one. When it's right, the therapist is a true balm for a suffering child and can offer coping strategies. When a child does not feel connected to a therapist, you are wasting time and money. Check in on this relationship frequently.
Let's look at your son's pain and how you can help him. As much as your ex is hurting him, remember that your son can find a safe emotional home in you. He will make it through this. A parent who is chronically unkind and bullying will always have an effect on a child. But the good news is that your son is deeply connected to you, too. Your influence matters, and you can help him get rid of his pain, disappointment and confusion.
Humans are wired to experience a wide variety of emotions — even very hard and upsetting emotions. And again, although I wish your ex could see how much he or she is hurting your son, the real danger of deeply hurt feelings is that they get stuck. You see, when we have big, difficult emotions and move through them by talking, crying or running, for instance, it helps the mind to adapt to the pain but not be controlled by it. This is why therapy works so well. Therapists aren't changing the past or changing you; they are helping you move through your feelings.
As a parent, you are a container for your son's pain and disappointment. You will have to continuously reassure him that these criticisms are more about his other parent than about him. You will have to walk the fine line between defending your son without completely trashing your ex (and this would be very hard for me, personally).
As his parent, you will have to show him what vulnerability looks like, and you will have to shoulder some of the behaviors that may result from his hurt feelings. Because pain can easily manifest as frustration and aggression, and because your son feels safer around you, you will have to dance with any explosions he has. Not to mention, your son is 12 years old, and that is not an easy age. I recommend reading Gary Chapman's "The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers" to help you understand the many ways you can communicate with your soon-to-be teen. The book focuses on practical methods to connect to a teen and keep that connection strong. Down the road, it can also give you a common language to help you understand both your son and daughter.
Although you don't explicitly ask for advice about your daughter, she's also caught in this emotional mess. All children, no matter how painful or lopsided the relationship is, will try to stay close to a parent who is hurting them. This is due to a biological need to stay close to our connections, even if these connections are hurtful. And because your daughter is on the winning end of the pain, it is all the more confusing. But you don't have to look far for evidence of how painful it is to be the openly favored child in a family. Although the power feels good initially, a child knows when it is hollow and feels it even more in the face of a sibling being put down.
There is no antidote for helping your daughter through this except keeping strong boundaries around the language that is acceptable and the language that isn't. You must constantly negotiate between not putting her down while also not allowing her other parent to stroke her ego at her brother's expense. Like her brother, your daughter is going to have to learn that her other parent loves her, but this love is not a love that is healthy. Again, this pain may be acute, but a listening, compassionate and boundaried relationship with you, as well as effective therapy, will go a long way with your family.
Above all, believe that you are up to this job. Your kids desperately need you to act as a buffer, so take very good care of yourself. Good luck.