How Do I Help My Son Who Is Siding with His Dad?

Morning friend,

Let me share something I’ve been doing lately that has brought me a greater sense of peace, self-control, and joy. I don’t do it perfectly, but I’ve been doing it more often. I pause and notice. For example, when I walk, I am deep into my audiobook. I pause, stop listening, and take notice of what’s around me for a bit. I listen to the bird song, I see another walker, I smell the flowers blooming, and I feel joy. 

I’ve learned to press pause when I start to feel anxious, upset, or irritable. I want to notice what’s going on in my thinking, my body, my feelings, as well as my external world so that I can make the next right choice instead of reacting or staying miserable. When someone is talking and I’m busy thinking about how I might respond I press pause and stop thinking, and deeply notice what they are saying and their body language – called listening.  I often find that I learn so much when I am fully present listening (rather than thinking). It helps me know how to respond more wisely when it’s my turn to talk. Try it. Pause. Notice. Let me know what happens for you. 

Today’s Question:  My son used to be very discerning and intuitive about his dad. His dad, my husband, used to verbally assault both of us. I chose to stay well so my son would never have to be with my husband alone. He was afraid of his dad and never wanted to go anywhere with him alone. 

This worked ok for a time. But then my husband changed his tactic and started love bombing our son. Now my son, 15, is now siding with the abuser. This was heartbreaking and I couldn't understand it for over a year.  I prayed and the answer was Stockholm syndrome. I'm not sure now if it was the best thing to stay. Or if now I should get out of the marriage. Here are my questions.

1. How do I help my child?

2. Am I contributing or doing something that makes it hard for my child to continue to see the Truth? Are there things you've seen or heard from other women that they did that was detrimental to their children?

I have done my work, but I'm devastated about what has happened to our child.  I can't go back and change anything now, but I need advice on how to move forward.  What am I missing?

Is there more I need to change to help my child? If so, please tell me what you see.

Answer: My heart breaks for you. I’m so sorry that your son is now siding with his dad who has been abusive towards you and him. Hindsight is always 20/20 and it’s tempting to get caught in the “I should have, could have, would have” regrets. I love that you said you can’t go back and change things that you’ve already done. You’re right. That chapter has closed and it’s time to write a new chapter in your parenting story. Let’s call this new chapter, How do I parent a 15 year old son who doesn’t want to hear from his mother?  

This new season of parenting is not unique to your situation or to your son. A mother and son relationship does shift in the teenage and young adult years. That doesn’t mean it has to be bad, but it’s not the same. It’s crucial that you accept that transition.  

Most 15-year-old sons don’t want to hang out with or be closely parented by their mother. Rightly so. Even if you had a great relationship with your son when he was little, this is a time for him to stretch his wings and try out his emerging man-self. This new “man-self” doesn’t want to “need a mom” to solve his problems or help him. He wants/needs to feel capable and competent. He wants to figure things out for himself. He longs to become independent and stand on his own two feet. It is also normal for a 15-year-old boy to start identifying with his father. His father is a man, and your son is figuring out how to be a man. Their bond might grow and be stronger during this season, regardless of their past-history. Is it possible for you to be grateful that your husband is no longer verbally assaulting your son, even if his behavior hasn’t changed towards you?

You asked two questions, let me start with your first one. How do you help your child?

As already mentioned, your first big step is to accept that your child is no longer a child. Therefore, you parent differently. It’s crucial that you treat him as someone who can have choices, does have an opinion, and would prefer to hang out with his dad or friends than his mom. I would encourage you to try hard not to take these things personally. Most mothers of sons experience this pulling away, even if there was no abuse in the home. It’s not a rejection of you, it’s a rejection of his “need” for you as a mom. If you can emotionally accept that reality, then you can patiently forge a new relationship with him as a soon to be adult and “parent him” in different ways.

How you can most help him during this transition is for you to get/stay as healthy and strong as you can. In this transition between child to man, a mother also must make a transition from being “the mom” who’s been a caregiver/problem solver, nurturer in his life, to someone who is more than a mom. She must become a person in her own skin, who has her own feelings, needs, limits, and goals. For example, how you talk and discipline changes. Instead of scolding him, punishing him, or correcting him for misbehavior (which is your old mom hat), now if he verbally assaults you, you might instead say, “Ouch, that really hurts me” or “I don’t deserve that.” Or “I can’t listen to you when you talk to me like that” and walk away. He does not get access to you, your help, your attention, your time, your money, your car, etc., when he treats you as an object (like his father has done). 

There may be opportunities during this season to have more thoughtful conversations with your son. Perhaps while driving in the car or doing a house chore together where you can say, “I’m so glad your dad and you have a better relationship. As you are becoming your own man, you will have to decide what kind of man you want to be. Dad has some great qualities (if that’s true).  Perhaps he’s a hard worker, or he’s intelligent, or creative, but he also has a short fuse and a cruel temper. Think hard about the kind of man you want to be. I don’t think you want to use your words to hurt those you love.”  

Short, pithy, wise moments are all he’s going to give you during these years. Therefore, be ready when that moment is there without trying to win him over to your “side”. Because your husband will probably try to continue to alienate him from you, it’s important that you do not get ensnared in “good cop”/ “bad cop” parenting style. For now, logical consequences will be his best teacher, not words. One consequence might be the loss of you doing something for him that he wants you to do. You might say “when you talk to me that way, I do not want to drive in the car with you. Therefore, I will not drive you to school, you’ll have to take the bus”.  Or “when you refuse to help out with unloading the dishwasher, then I can’t make dinner until I have a clear, clean space to work.”  You don’t have to be mean, but you must be firm. Don’t say something you are not fully committed to following through on or your words will not mean anything to him. That’s why you must also continue to do your own work to value you. 

Your second question is what might you be doing that is detrimental or making it hard for him to “see the truth.” You don’t say what you do or don’t do, and you’ve already said your son recognized and labeled your husband’s abuse as abuse when he was younger. For others who are reading this blog understand that when you lie, cover up or pretend by whitewashing dad’s issues, that is not best. For example, saying things like, “Oh he (Dad) didn’t mean it”. Or “He’s just tired, not drunk.” Or “He had such a hard childhood, that’s why he is mean.”  Children see. Children know something is wrong even if we do a really good job at trying to make it appear better than it is. By pretending things are better than they truly are, we teach our child not to trust his own perceptions. That doesn’t mean we put the hard truth in front of our children in all its ugly detail. That would be cruel. But it does mean we’re honest with limits. Here’s what that might sound like.

“Yes, your dad has a temper and he’s really mean with his words. I’m so sorry he said those things to you.”

“Dad and I are having marriage problems. You don’t need to know all the details but what dad told you about me having an affair or spending all his money (or whatever dad lied about) is not true.”

Last, your parenting years are winding down. Your marriage is cruel and lonely. It’s crucial that you build a support system of other godly women who can help you, not only through this time, but to build a sense of connection and community with others who care about you.  

Our children are not our support system. They need the freedom to love both of their parents and can become more harmed if they feel pressured to take sides. Your husband may be trying to get your son to choose him and reject you so that he can feel “vindicated” or “right”.  That harms your son. Therefore, your response is not to prove he’s wrong, and you’re right. That still harms your son. 

What you can say instead of “your dad’s a jerk or a narcissistic abuser” is, “I don’t like the way your dad treats me.”  Or “I don’t want to have a conversation with someone who won’t listen to my point of view.”  Remember your son is trying to find some good in his dad that he can identify with as a man. If you can give him guilt free space to find that rather than label dad as “all bad” your son will get through these years and begin to figure out how he’s “different” from his dad.  

Your son will do best if he can love and care for both parents, even when they are flawed and imperfect. Do not put him in the middle or ask him to take sides or fight for you.

You must fight for you so please get the support and help you need to do that in a way that in the end, you feel proud of yourself and how you handled yourself in this tough marriage and parenting season.

Friend, as a mom who has gone through this or is going through this, what other advice do you have to give for her two questions?

13 Comments

  1. Dena on May 2, 2024 at 8:16 am

    I think I understand what the mom is trying to say here…..son is “siding” with dad. I’m inferring that it’s more than just a natural teenage male shift toward the masculine role model. I think it’s important that we moms strategically counter the narratives and manipulative behaviors that dads employ to buy the allegiance of their children. When the opportunity presents itself, mom might mention something to her son like “Someday, when you have a wife, It’s important to treat her with respect and kindness. It’s not okay to treat your wife with disrespect while showering your children with love and attention so that they will like you”. Or, if dad ignores her but is overly exuberant around the son, she could mention “I wonder…what do you think when dad talks so kindly to you but acts like I’m not even in the room. Is it okay to treat other people like that?” Dad’s motives here seem clear to me…I doubt this is about relationship. It’s more about destroying mom’s relationship with the son by manipulating him into shifting alliances. Men know EXACTLY what they’re doing when they love-bomb kids who desperately crave a father’s attention yet cannot yet discern the difference between manipulation and true love/nurturing. It’s a cruel game. I’m a domestic abuse survivor, and I’ve worked with survivors since 2016. This is a common tactic, and it’s important that moms counter it in a way that works best for them and their children.

    • Diane on May 2, 2024 at 6:57 pm

      Thank you for addressing this woman’s real fear. Also adding the fear for her son when Dad no longer love bombs and becomes critical and hateful toward son. How will this harm her son? This woman knows because she has been there!

    • Leslie Vernick on May 2, 2024 at 11:03 pm

      I agree with you Dena that mom’s counter the alienation of their character, but I disagree with you that they counter it by talking negatively about dad’s character – or by asking the child rhetorical questions that have obvious no answers but force a child to choose one parent over the other. Where I agree with you is when your ex or current husband lies to the children about you -For example, “mom’s having an affair” or “mom’s taking all my money” or “mom doesn’t love you” or “Mom is a drug addict, or is crazy,” then I believe it’s important to counter those lies with the truth – especially if you have factual evidence to back it up. “I do not have the power to take all of dad’s money. Only the judge decides about dividing the family money.” or “I did not have an affair that’s a made up story in your father’s mind.” Or, “I am not crazy, no counselor I’ve ever gone to has told me that.” However, when dad lies about himself – I quit my job vs he got fired, or I didn’t cheat on mom when he did – I think age appropriate “truth” can be helpful if a child wants to know. For example, “Things didn’t happen the way your father told you. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me.” That gives a child a choice how much they want to know and when. I don’t think it is in a child’s best interests to hear that either one of his or her parents are horrible people. Remember, this child comes from both of you and so when one is labeled evil or bad it impacts the way a child views his or her own self too.

  2. Tracey on May 2, 2024 at 8:54 am

    I love this advice and wish I had known then what I know now. I have four daughters and am still with my husband. They have seen his verbal and emotional abuse toward me and to them sometimes and I have reacted poorly in many ways. I like the verbiage about not wanting to talk to someone who doesn’t value my opinion- that’s good!
    My father was very verbally and emotionally abusive to my mother and when we would say something, she would tell us that he’s our father and we have to respect him. I’ve used that line with my girls too.
    As my girls are young adults now, I’ve learned to parent differently. I’m grateful to have this resource to learn and grow.

  3. Holly on May 2, 2024 at 10:12 am

    I am so sorry you have to walk this road. It is painful and it is refining in ways that sometimes feels unbearable.

    What Leslie says here about the way your relationship with your son will and needs to change is 100% true. If you have a hard time accepting her words of wisdom, as a mom of 2 sons and 2 daughters I know this hurts to hear, then I would strongly encourage you to take each part Leslie laid out and cry out to the Lord every day for His work in your heart to give you a willingness to head this wise counsel.

    For me, this was one of the hardest parts of all the brokenness of my marriage and my willingness to stay and try to make it work for my children’s sake. (I am now divorced and my kids are a few years older than your son) Your son has been a child through most of it and every child wants more than anything to look up to and love their mom and their dad. If for a season your son needs to put blinders on to his dad’s sinful behavior to develop that close relationship, please trust the Lord that you can endure this pain and that you don’t need to make your son see the truth about his dad, “help him” as you put it, to be okay in your heart. You have to be at peace in your heart with the Lord…His love has to be sufficient for you in this season of your son’s exploration of his relationship with his dad, or you will lose your relationship with him altogether. Please know that the love and truth you poured into your son was not for nothing. God loves your son more than you and will water those seeds, but God has a plan for your son’s life that is beyond what you can even hope for him and will do what is needed to accomplish that plan.

    I believe that if you follow Leslie’s wise advice, you will continue to have a good relationship with your son as he becomes an adult, but Leslie is accurate that it will never be the same as it was when he was little. If you can choose to thank the Lord for the privilege and blessing of the close bond you shared with him as a child, and if you can choose to step into this new season of a different kind of relating with an open heart to God’s will for this season, and if you can trust God with your son’s heart and growth in this next season of his life, you will do well. It’s not easy. Leslie’s encouragement to set up your own strong support system is absolutely vital to your own emotional health through this. As a sister in Christ a few steps further down this painful path, I implore you to let your son love his father, for your son’s sake. I am praying for you and your son. May God bless and keep you.

    • Cecilia Carranza on May 2, 2024 at 10:42 am

      That is exactly what Im goung thru to the T! Wow God knows! I so need consistent support ! God bless & prayers for all , joy comes in the morning and I thank him that his mercy is new every day.
      Time , healing & hope in Jesus name!
      Cecilia

    • Sara on May 2, 2024 at 11:50 am

      Such good advice! Thank you for sharing Holly. As a mom of twin 19 year-old sons (and two daughters) I relate and resonate with so much of this. It has been a hard and painful season. I have been on the verge of separation often these past couple years but have been afraid I would completely lose relationship with my children because my husband has become good at love bombing them much more often and being the “fun dad”, while I was the frustrated, hurting, and often angry mom. I have done a lot of my own work these past 5 years, thanks to Leslie’s ministry and I am a different person today. Stronger, healthier and moving forward with my life (I’m currently in school). I appreciate Leslie’s advice to allow our sons to have their own relationship with their Dad, to not ask them to take sides. I needed to hear all of this today… So thank you everyone! I am so thankful for this amazing community of godly women!

  4. Michelle on May 2, 2024 at 10:41 am

    I would encourage you to either enroll in Conquer or seek out an individual therapist. I went through this with my teenage daughter. Our children will talk to you the way our spouses talk to us. This includes diminishing us and showing disrespect. For them, it feels like they are distancing themselves and growing as an adult. While they do need to assert their opinions and develop their own identity, we need to establish our own boundaries and what we will not allow as mentioned in the blog. We as mothers tend to be people pleasers and co dependent in a dysfunctional relationships. I know that I had a similar role in my family of origin. In my case, my husband was drinking and into other risky behaviors which led to a tryst with a close family friend. I think that he needed an excuse for his behavior and by diminishing me to my daughter and others, it gave him the pass he needed. I was blindsided and in denial about what was going on around me. I was a mess and my self esteem plummeted to the point I did not trust myself. We eventually divorced after failed marriage therapy. He threw me under the bus. Told friends I was menopausal and crazy. I went to therapy to deal with my anger and family of origin, the sexual betrayal, and regain my sanity. I am currently estranged from my older daughter 11 years later. I lost my home and stuff. I thought it was the end of the world. However, Even though I prayed for God to fix my family, I found God had a better plan for me. I am happier than I was during my marriage. I realized that I had my priorities mixed up. I had put family first. I put God and self ahead of family now. My point is please take care of your self and get the help now to navigate these waters. Find a community that will give you support and validation.

  5. Kat on May 2, 2024 at 10:43 am

    So well stated. Let God reveal the whole truth to your son over the years. Be confident in your own strength with the Lord’s help. Always be truthful, not covering up, but gently revealing your own healing from your disappointing relationship with his father, while allowing your son the freedom to define and develop his unique relationship with his dad and with you. Someone told me recently, sons need to feel respected by their moms more than nurtured at this stage of growing up. I am praying for your strength going forward and sharing in your journey with you.

  6. Stacee on May 2, 2024 at 11:19 am

    This happened with my brother’s children. It was a bit different in that it was his wife who was bad mouthing their father and trying to manipulate them to her side. This season lasted for about 4 years, all leading up to their divorce and for a few years after. I and my family (his parents and siblings) couldn’t understand why he allowed the ex to behave this way while he just “turned the other cheek”. Now, 6 years post divorce both children have close, loving and respectful relationships with their father, my brother. Leslie’s answers to your questions help me see that situation clearly now as well as give me tools for my future relationship with our son should this scenario happen. Thank you for your wise counsel

  7. Connie on May 2, 2024 at 3:39 pm

    I have a question. Most of what I read here is great. However, how can we put it differently than, “Dad and I have marriage problems….” I don’t think that’s truthful. There must be a wise way to say that he’s an abuser. That is what he wants you to say, and what he says, but it’s not true.
    Also, “You need to respect your dad.” Maybe define respect? That is what my ex says to my children, “You have to respect your mom”, and it comes off condescending and self-righteous, and ends up back-firing on me. Just a thought.

    • Leslie Vernick on May 2, 2024 at 6:11 pm

      Connie, if you reread the blog I not only said she can say “Dad and I are having marital problems, she also can say, “Your dad is mean with his words….etc.” Both are true. I never suggested she say “you need to respect your father.” And we may agree to disagree whether or not labeling dad as an abuser is helpful at this point or more hurtful. I think describing his actions as hurtful, unkind, not a way you want to be treated gets the message across without putting the child in a position of having to pick sides or defend dad – which is what she does not want to ask him to do. Perhaps it would be helpful for you to ask your ex husband to define what he means when he says to your children, “You have to respect your mom”. But since he’s an ex, it probably will only stir the pot and add more drama.

      • Connie on May 2, 2024 at 6:53 pm

        Sorry, Leslie, someone else said the bit about respect. I should have made that clearer. It’s a crazy dance for sure. Sometimes it feels like you can’t get it right no matter what. I keep hearing, “Well we both have trust issues, you abuse me too, we both…….whatever” . I just wonder if there is another way to address that with children. But as one of mine said, I want a relationship with both of you, so I don’t even want to hear what you have to say. ”

        I guess to me, “Dad and I are having marital problems” is like sin leveling. “We’re all sinners”, so then the wife looks like she’s ‘judging’. That’s what the church does already. Maybe we can leave it at, “Your dad is mean with his words”?

        With my ex and current, ANYTHING I say to them is bad and used as cannon fodder. That’s what they want, is cannon fodder. A reaction or response, anything is game and fun, fun, fun. Saying ‘Respect your mother” comes with an eyeroll and an attitude of, ‘even though we all know how she is’, and then a nasty wife joke a few minutes later. Another good one is, “We should pray for your mother, you know.”

        I’m originally from Germany, and when Hitler comes up, Americans like to say, “Well if the people would have stopped it, they should have done something.” Same thing. How do we stop this? People are easily deceived, they like to keep the peace, not make waves, fix it quietly from the inside, be on the good side of everyone. Hitlers are not stopped easily, and certainly can’t be reasoned with. It takes some serious intervention, and as long as the church ( especially the men of the church) aren’t willing to get their hands dirty, these wolves will just keep preying. To be honest, one reason I don’t leave this one is that I don’t wish this on the next supply victim.

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