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How Listening To My Son Kept My Divorce From Becoming An All-Out War

The following was syndicated from Quora for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at

What is the hardest lesson you’ve had to teach your child? How did you do it?

I’m going to fudge on the teaching bit, as I don’t know that I truly taught this. I just kept reinforcing and supporting until my son learned these lessons on his own.

This happened during my long (3 and a half years) and terrible custody struggle with my ex wife. I left my ex when my son was 9. During that time, many things happened that I knew in the depths of my being were not right for my son.

While I was not perfect, his mother’s disordered existence and interactions with him were hurting him. I tried to talk to my ex, as well as taking action legally, but neither approach worked. My ex always felt my advocacy for my son was more about me, about her, or about revenge for old wounds. My attempts at fighting those things was going badly because I was the wrong person to fight, and because fighting my ex was the wrong approach.

Flickr (Nisha A)

Children have real feelings that are valid. This doesn’t mean that children are in charge, or that parents don’t say “no.” However, sometimes it means that their views can often inform parents as to what’s best. With my son, I, as well as his therapist, began helping him into formulating effective and assertive verbal tools to speak his own feelings to me and to my ex-wife.

I didn’t need my son to take my side. I needed my son to take his side, and I knew his mom would listen to him. He needed help with things that are hard, even for adults: speaking honestly about his feelings, asking for what he really needs, and telling someone in his life that how they are behaving is not okay for him.

He still struggles with those lessons (as do I!). However, him having the ability to assert himself has made all of our lives immeasurably better. He can’t fight all his own battles, but he handles most of them. Sometimes he fights them with me, which is fine.

Jeff Nichols writes about politics, family, and relationships. You can find more Quora posts here: