I know this isn't quite the same, but my niece used to be a terrible brat, especially after her parents got divorced. Over the years, my sister has been systematically correcting her behaviour at every turn, explaining why, and now, my niece is a very nice girl. I find that these deep-seated character problems take years to be sorted out and educated away. A person has to learn by living and being educated and this takes time.
In itself that doesn't sound too bad to me. He's only 4, he's there to be educated. Lots of people start out very screwy at an early age and end up fine later.
Try not to ready anything too disturbing into that. It may be your past is influencing you perceive that action.
I would use that behavior as an opportunity to discuss personal boundaries...
When i was six, i liked brushing my mother's hair and removed the hairpins and i don't know the name of what else. During this time i also liked to see girls with long, flowing hair (my crush had this and the most beautiful smile). So it could just be him starting to notice girls and starting to form a preference. As he invaded your personal, you can just teach him that some thing are better said than done, like Kairan said.
He must have learned all that from his dad. As well, I think that appropriate control over our environment is something we need. Some people try and control others and it's actually because they really don't have any personal power. I think it's good if your son is given things he can have control over - his personal domain, things it's OK for him to control. Then hopefully he won't feel a need to control people inappropriately later on. He's probably in a power battle with you?
Apart from that, I really believe he needs patient educating, correcting and explaining.
I think you're right about his feeling out of control spurring his need to control his mother. There was a similar dynamic in my family when my father got worse. I was a teen and able to reflect and change my behavior...but a four year old, dealing with a much more difficult situation could be much more controlling and have very little self-awareness.
Belle, I think you should follow your therapist's advice. For your own peace of mind, don't forget that your son is not a miniature version of his dad or his mom. Yes, he is predisposed to mental illness, BUT remember that many genes lay dormant until triggered by environment. You can't control the environment at his father's but you can provide stability and a healthy environment under your roof. You son is so lucky that he has a smart, determined mother in his life who cares about him so much. Your generation will be the turning point in a family legacy of passing on dysfunction--you've already changed so much! Keep going.
He laughs when people get hurt (and even sometimes if he hurts them)...he learned that from his dad.
That's actually quite normal in children, as children we (my entire class) laughed every time some fell of their chair. But as we improved our empathy towards others that sort of thing stopped and concern took its place. While it is important to call him out and explained him why is not correct (instead of wrong), keep in mind that it's a child thing that can be left off sooner or later.
That sounds like a good place to start.
I hate to say this as i'm not a certified psychologist ( i dropped out that major) and i'll probably regret it later, but because this is important i'll take a shot.
Everyone have three ways of interacting with others, simply called Parent, Adult, Child. More info here. Which are kind of self explanatory, it's normal for a person to switch from one state to another depending of what they are doing or who they are dealing; however, under certain circumstances a person can take a state-role that he/she should not take like a parent acting like children at all times towards their children with children taking the parent's roles.
This said, it's possible that some of his behavior comes from the idea that he needs to fill a missing role in his house, possibly as an adult or a father. So you could talk to your son about this and remind him that he is a child first and foremost and that there are adult/parent things that he should not care about, like if mommy took a bath or if she is wearing her underwear on her head.
Most importantly, talk to your son's therapist about this because i'm very likely pulling things out of my ass and are more likely wrong than right due to a huge varying of factors.
I believe that your son acts up because he is frightened and traumatised. I think his aggression and controlling are a form of fight or flight response. If I can control my surroundings, they're no longer so scary. If my surroundings are chaotic and frightening, I don't feel in control.
Also, he's seen you being abused by your husband so he copies this behaviour and thinks that's the way to get what he wants.
I've come to believe that most men need to think of themselves and be seen as a real man. This is a good and worthy thing. The problem comes when weak frightened men try to fake it, and end up as manipulative bullies instead of just being straightforward and strong.
Basically your son needs to learn to overcome his fear so he can grow up to be a strong man instead of a weak man who fakes it (with disastrous results). The only way to overcome fear is to admit it, and then grab it by the balls. What this looks like in a kid, however, I can't tell you, as I only learned this as an adult.
A real man is
- morally upright.