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I am divorced and have an 8-year-old son. Our son lives half of the time with me, half of the time with his mother. Communication between us parents is good, there is no conflict of any kind, and we cooperate well in raising our son.

Sometimes (about once every two months), when our son is with his mother and they have some quarrel that upsets him, he calls me, and, overwhelmed with hurt and anger, says something angry to me and then hangs up the phone. These calls come completely out of the blue for me, and I'm usually unprepared for them and busy with something else (I often work on those weekends that our son is with his mother).

The problem for me, when I get one of these upset phone calls, is, that I don't know what is (truly) going on – so I don't know what the appropriate reaction would be –, feel that he needs me (or he wouldn't call me) – so I feel I need to help him –, but at his age constructive discussions on the phone are not yet possible (and not what he needs). What he usually needs in similar situations when he is with me is time to calm down and some sort of "making up" when he and I are ready for it. I cannot do that over the phone, and I'm also not the person he has been hurt by, so what I often do is call his mother, talk to her, get some (biased) explanation, try to get her to calm down (if she is angry or upset) or change her perspective (if she is, in my opinion, overly strict) and then hope that they can resolve their conflict. Often I call them again later to see how they are, and usually they are fine, but sometimes the conflict goes on for some time, and sometimes I get a few calls with increasing emotions which then unsettles me because I'm too far away to actually interfere in a meaningful way.

I don't want to turn my phone off, because I want to be available to my son, but at the same time these events stress me out and often leave me feeling down for the rest of the day and I don't want to be what I like to call the "trash bin" for my son's negative emotions, when I'm not the "culprit".

I understand that in a family that lives together, similar things happen, but the phone makes these situations especially difficult. When I'm there, and he's in a conflict with his mother, I can ask him to go out and play soccer with me, and thus get him out of the frustating situation and allow him to take his attention away from his hurt so it can calm over. But when I'm on the phone there is nothing I can do. I can only talk, and talk doesn't help him get out of being focussed on what angers and hurts him.

So basically my question is, how can I deal with these phone calls? I can't always drop what I'm doing and go over there and take care of stuff. I also can't (or don't want to) turn off my phone for the time our son stays with his mother, because being divorced does not free me from the responsibility of caring for our child.

Mostly, I guess, I lack the abilty to listen to him and be there, but not let his emotions affect my own. These phone calls wouldn't be so difficult for me, if I were more stable in my own emotions and didn't feel so over-responsible for the happiness (not well-being) of my child. I understand that it is normal for every person to be frustrated, even sad, from time to time, but I cannot well deal with my son feeling bad, and being unable to do do anything over the phone is torture.

Any ideas?

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I'm not going to suggest a quick fix; this takes time. But it involves and imparts life skills.

Things that are helpful in situations like these:

  1. Realize that it's not your job to fix other people's emotions.

This is easier said than done, but it's true. If you try to fix it, your son will have learned nothing about resolving conflict, or preventing conflicts from happening in the first place. As a parent, it is, however, your job to help your son learn to handle conflict and his own emotions arising from it (there will be conflict in relationships of every kind. Best to learn how to handle it sooner rather than later.)

Read about conflict resolution skills and start practicing them with your child. Depending on your relationship with your ex, you might email her any really good reading material you find that might help her with your son too.

2) Start teaching your son about healthy boundaries.

If you don't know about setting and maintaining healthy boundaries yourself, you probably haven't set any, navigating life as it comes at you. This might work for some, but healthy boundaries are a vital part of taking care of yourself emotionally, and teaching your son about them will help him in his life as well.

Read about setting healthy boundaries; there's a lot available on the internet, and there are a lot of good books on the subject.

You may or may not agree with this, but since your son is safe and with a capable, competent parent when he is with his mother, you can tell him that you will not be immediately available to him to hear about conflicts that arise with her. Set a boundary: you will be off-duty until x o'clock. If at x o'clock he still wants to talk with you, he can do so. Hopefully by x o'clock, they will have worked the problem out themselves, or at least he will have decompressed some. Make it clear that he can call you, but not immediately for that reason (clearly you should be reachable for true emergencies.) If he disregards the boundary, reinforce it by reminding him of it and telling him you'll talk to him at x o'clock. "I love you, and your mom loves you. Your mom is right there. Tell Mommy how you're feeling and work it out with her. I'll talk to you at x'oclock. I love you (etc.)"

  1. Give your son a very rich emotional vocabulary.

Being able to name a feeling is the first step in learning how to deal with it. There are age appropriate emotional vocabularies available - you guessed it - on the internet. I would aim higher than his given age, though. Talk to your child often about his emotions - the entire range of them - and try to identify what underlies them as well, so that he can deal with the primary emotion, the thing that's really behind his outburst (it may be that he feels unloved, disrespected, untrustworthy, etc. when he has conflict, depending on the kind.)

  1. Then talk about his feelings and not to try to resolve the conflict.

If you can help him name his feelings - as a keen observer, not a participant - you will feel much less stress when those situations arise. It is a rational layer of insulation from your own feelings of helplessness/responsibility/frustration/whatever.

talk doesn't help him get out of being focused on what angers and hurts him.

It may not be as immediate as distraction, but distraction doesn't really teach him about conflict resolution, either. Talk, though, does.

  1. Divorce your emotions from the situation.

Give yourself time to step back from the situation and analyze your reaction. Work out what you think is the best course of action, and do what is best, not what you feel will work.

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