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Dear Abby: I have a 10-year-old son. “Zack” is a great kid, creative, funny and athletic. He has decided to grow his hair long. My husband and I figure it’s not illegal or immoral, so why fight it?

My family does not share our opinion. My mom and sister are cruel in their opposition to Zack’s growing his hair. They tell him he looks like a girl and call him names. There have been bribes, bullying and instances of utter insanity on their part, trying to make him cut it. My sister’s son has been physically and verbally cruel to Zack, and she thinks it’s funny. She’s repeating a pattern from when we were children of being the “toughest” – if you can’t handle the abuse, you’re a “baby.”

I need to know how to stand up to these family members for my son. It’s a struggle for me to speak to them face-to-face, and they have called me a coward for sending email messages. My mother lives alone and sometimes has suicidal thoughts. Zack is stressed because he loves his grandma, but he can’t deal with her harassment. Can you help?

– Guilt-Ridden and Stressed in Ontario, Canada

Dear Guilt-Ridden and Stressed: Somehow, for your son’s sake, you must find the courage to tell your mother and your sister to their faces that if they don’t knock it off immediately, they’ll be seeing a lot less of you and Zack. The dynamics in your family are unhealthy, but you are an adult now and no longer have to tolerate it. Because Zack is athletic, enroll him in self-defense classes and make sure he knows he does not have to tolerate physical abuse from anyone, and that includes his cousin. As to “Grandma,” your son’s emotional health must take precedence over hers. I seriously doubt she’ll kill herself if she doesn’t have your son to make miserable, so don’t feel guilty about it.

Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips. Write Dear Abby at www.DearAbby.com or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, CA 60069.