Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Help son see he isn't responsible for his father's behavior
Maryland: I am the mother of two boys, 21 and 19. Their father and I divorced three years ago and their father quickly remarried and had two more children. I was devastated by the divorce.
Right now my older son lives with his father, while my younger son lives with me. The elder has chosen to push me and his brother out of his life. The younger reaches out, but his brother won't engage with him. My younger had a difficult temperament while growing up, but he has really matured the last couple of years.
What can I do to help? Right now I feel that if I do anything other than coordinate family events, I will come off as controlling and manipulative.
Carolyn: That is a lot of change in a very short time. While it's important for the older son to know you aren't giving up on him, you need to give everyone time to process all these changes. New and confusing emotions (and the defenses they trigger) are responsible, I believe, for most of the rash and hurtful things people do to each other.
It also wouldn't hurt to put extra patience into your relationship with their father. Your devastation is real, but the loss of your husband is a done deal; focus now on not losing your son. Ultimately that's up to your son, of course, but your ex can be your strongest ally. You want him gently but actively discouraging your older son from severing family ties.
Backing off and giving people room to make their own decisions — especially when you're the one who suffers from those decisions — also happens to be your best defense against charges of being controlling. I'm sorry.
Maryland Again: I have asked their father to be my ally with no great success. My younger son feels neglected by his father, so that fuels this whole issue.
I am giving my son space and it hurts. But it hurts worse to see him push away his brother, who really needs his family more than ever.
Carolyn: The message your younger son might need to hear most right now is that people do things for their own reasons, and often they don't think through the consequences of their actions.
For someone in his position, the natural question is: What did I do to make my own father lose interest in me? The more apt question, though, may be: What frailty in my father makes it okay, in his mind, to detach from his own son?
I often advise examining one's own behavior and motives, where now I advocate examining someone else's. It's perilously close to assigning blame.
However, there are times when it is appropriate to recognize that you aren't responsible (except, as always, for your own response).
Choosing which one to advise, looking inward or outward, is often a matter of contrast: Someone who internalizes things might need a nudge to think about what others' roles might have been, and the one who is blaming might need a reminder to look inward a bit more.
It's also about recognizing when you cause a problem, and when you're collateral damage. Both of your sons are collateral damage. Both need to hear that out loud.