I worry my grandson is being harmed by his father’s negative behaviour

·4-min read

I am the grandmother of a six-year-old boy. The mother divorced the father four years ago because of abusive behaviour. Although both parents are British, the mother and her son live in the UK and the father in another European country. The child has a chronic condition which means frequent visits to hospital and daily medication.

The father remains extremely hostile to the mother. Access has been arranged by court order, and the mother is very conscious that the child needs time with his father, which she tries to facilitate over and above the court order. The child’s medication and update on his condition need to be passed over at the handover, but this doesn’t happen because of the father’s hostility.

Also, the father is constantly telling his son how much better his country is, and that the boy will eventually live in that country and take over his business. He is negative about anything to do with life in the UK.

The child is becoming quite confused and anxious as he wants to please his father, but he’s emotionally very tied to his mother and settled in school. The court order for child access stated “neither parent should denigrate the other in front of the child”, but this is meaningless as it happens all the time from the father.

I worry that the child is at risk of ending up with psychological and/or other problems if the father continues to undermine his son’s security, confidence and trust in his mother, his home, his wider family, his school and his life generally. As far as I know, there is nothing that can be done to change this negative behaviour from the father. The child and father clearly love each other, so [helping the situation] could be a positive thing.

In your letter you did not say if you are the maternal or paternal grandmother, though I suspect you are the former – and this matters as I wonder whose “ear” you have. It was also unclear how much you see your grandson, as your influence and love will be key here. I contacted psychotherapist Nicole Addis (psychotherapy.org.uk) who pointed out you are right, neither parent should denigrate the other or cause parental alienation.

I also spoke to family lawyer Karen Dovaston, interim chair of the Law Society’s family law committee. She said unless you were “party to [court] proceedings” you will not know what was discussed and agreed in court, nor should you have seen the court papers as they are confidential.” She also said that any action, such as asking to vary the court order, must come through the mother (ideally) or father. If your grandson’s mother thinks there is a problem and wants to vary the court order (bearing in mind contact cannot go below what the order stipulates but it does not have to go above), then she will have to reapply to the court.

Getting evidence here is important: any abusive text messages, medical evidence that drugs aren’t being administered or of parental alienation. If you’ve raised these issues with the mother and she doesn’t want to act, and you believe the child is physically/emotionally at risk, your only avenue is to apply for permission to ask for a child arrangement order via the court; in other words, that the child comes to live with you. Or you could report the situation to social services who may decide there’s been a failure to protect. I’m sure I don’t need to point out that these steps should only be taken if you think the child is seriously at risk.

Is there anyone in this you can talk to, to play a sort of mediating role? Do you have any sort of relationship with the father? Could you practise reflective listening with the mother so it’s less about telling her what she should be doing, but maybe let her talk to see what she feels her options are?

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Addis also wanted to ask if your grandson’s school has been alerted, so they can watch for changes in his behaviour. She also recommended spending time with your grandson to provide a place of safety where he can talk to you freely (but don’t ask leading questions as children feel protective of their parents at this age). This is why I asked how much you see him as you can provide a good counterbalance to his father if need be.

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