50% Custody and 100% Responsibility


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 165 · Duration: 00:20:59

50% Custody and 100% Responsibility

How do you keep your son caught up with his work when you only have 50% custody, he won’t do it on his own, and his father won’t take responsibility?

Today we’re hearing from Diana of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Diana writes:

50% Custody and 100% ResponsibilityMy husband and I divorced about a year and a half ago. We share 50-50 custody with our two sons, ages 15 and 12. Our 12 –year-old is doing pretty well. He’s always been a well-adjusted, easy-going kid. Our 15-year-old has always had a harder time with school and has been more difficult to manage. He loves sports but sports have been on hold since the pandemic. The pattern has been that I provide the structure while dad is either uninvolved or acting like a best friend to the kids unless he is fed up. Then he yells and gets some compliance, but it doesn’t really change things. This is a lot of why we divorced.

Things have gone downhill with our 15-year-old. He does very little work when at his father’s house and then it’s on me to help him get caught up. Our son fights me all the way. At this point, he’s calling me names and swearing at me. He refuses to help out at all around the house. We have more or less equal incomes yet I’m the one the kids come to when they want things. My 15-year-old will be sweet and agreeable if he wants something, but as soon as he gets what he wants, he reverts to his oppositional behavior. I’m very concerned that his grades will sink until the school puts him in an alternative program where very little will be asked of him. When I try to get parenting support from my ex, he says he was the same way as a kid and I just need to understand him better.

I know I’m not supposed to be in a Control Battle with my son, but I don’t know how to get him to be responsible when I get no support from the other parent. It would be easier to be a single parent, help.

Thanks for your question, Diana. These situations are always tough and I’ve seen many parents struggling to set healthy limits while feeling undermined by the other custodial parent.

When kids are on a generally good path, differences between households are manageable to them and they adjust. If Mom has different expectations than Dad, okay, that’s just part of the deal. But when teenagers aren’t on a healthy path forward, then differences can turn into seriously unhealthy patterns and control battles. It’s triangulation where you, your ex, and your son will predictably act in ways that are ineffective and unwittingly undermines youth growth and development.

Evaluating The Current Situation

Here is what I’m gathering is the choreography in your situation, Diana. When your son is at his father’s house, he doesn’t do too much to upset his father, watches a lot of YouTube videos, and doesn’t get a lot of work done. You get a notification from the school and communicate with his dad who says “I can’t watch him every minute. I can’t make him do his work, I have to do my work. His brother is getting his work done. What’s wrong with him?” And you say, “That puts all the responsibility on me to get him caught up.”

Then your son comes to your home, and you say, “I don’t know why your father can’t be a more responsible parent and help you with your work.”

And your son says, “That’s why Dad left. Because you’re such a _______.”

Then you try to get him to do his work and he says it’s all done and the teachers keep changing what they want him to do or, or he did it and they just haven’t graded it yet. You confront him with the real information that he hasn’t done a project and you get him to do a fair amount of it with a lot of your effort overcoming his resistance and maybe a bribe or two and then repeat it again next time around.

Maybe it isn’t this bad or maybe it’s worse, but my guess is there is some iteration of this.

I definitely feel for you being in this situation where you have a vision of your son being a responsible 15-year-old with support and limits from his parents and as a result, doing pretty well and preparing for his future. Instead, you fight with him all the time, cherish the warm happy times you have together but are increasingly frustrated and despondent about the fact that he isn’t moving forward and might fail. Now with the pandemic, he’s lost some of the opportunity to have the sports and things that are positive for him and make him feel successful and willing to try harder in school. It’s true, for many kids who aren’t particularly talented academically, having something else at school that motivates and excites them will keep them in the game academically.

For many kids who aren’t particularly talented academically, having something else at school that motivates and excites them will keep them in the game academically.Click To Tweet

These kids are not less smart. Their brains simply don’t function in a way that is best suited for academic success; organizational skills, processing speed, written expressive skills, or focus, to name a few of the many neural functions that make us all different from each other. So it’s harder for your 15-year-old since he isn’t academically talented and his interest which is sports is on hold. He’s not very motivated right now and motivation is key here because if you are motivated for him to do well and he isn’t and his father isn’t particularly motivated, well then that’s a formula for a Control Battle and you no doubt are experiencing Parental Burnout.

Address The Control Battle and Parental Burnout

There are a few principles to keep in mind here. It’s vital that you stop participating in the ongoing choreography of anger and frustration with his father and making your son’s success academically your responsibility.

Your frustration with your son, whether you’re angry with him or not, will be experienced by him as anger, and that inevitably invites Control Battles. That’s part of the choreography I’m referring to.

You are not going to be able to make up for your ex-husband’s lack of healthy parenting. The impact it has on your son is your son’s to deal with and if you try to make up for it, it will undermine your ability to simply be the best quality parent you can be. You’ll live in chronic frustration, anger and then you’ll be adding to the negatives in your son’s life.

We know what some of the trouble is, your son has lost much if not all of what he loves and now all there is for him is stuff he’s not great at. Sports are where his passion lies and he’s not passionate about school and he’s not motivated. A couple of things to think about here:

  • Where can he be involved in sports? Is there a COVID safe place for him to participate? Is there a place for him to practice and workout so when he can play, he’s ready?
  • What are some achievable school goals he can embrace? Does he want to play baseball next spring? Even if no sport is going on now, passing all his courses and having a decent average in the spring will be required to play. Is there a batting cage and maybe some high-quality coaching he could access now? Does he want to go to college? What kind of career has he started to envision? There are a ton of career opportunities in athletics aside from being a professional player. Does he want to play in college? Is he interested in coaching, team management, training, physical therapy, sports reporting; maybe player representation? These are all possibilities and while it’s not important for any 15-year-old to know what he or she wants to do for their career, it’s great to have a broad sense of what might be there for them; a vision to encourage them forward. Can your son see himself scouting talent for his favorite team, as an example?
While it’s not important for any 15-year-old to know what he or she wants to do for their career, it’s great to have a broad sense of what might be there for them; a vision to encourage them forward.Click To Tweet

So, Diana, it’s definitely time for you to end your participation in the family choreography, the Control Battle you have going on with your son, and your ex. Here’s what I recommend you do:

  • After a little research into what athletic participation opportunities there are out there for your son, take some time with just him. Take a half-day or if possible, an overnight to someplace special.
  • Use some of that time to talk about the losses he’s experiencing; the loss of the intact family unit, the athletic losses, and anything else going on, such as lost time with friends.
  • Talk about what a great kid he is and how the two of you have gotten into a bad groove and how sorry you are for how you’ve expressed your frustration with him and his dad and how you want your relationship with him to be much more positive, even when things are challenging.
  • Bring your empathetic self to the relationship, not the fix-it taskmaster self.
  • Talk about goals; immediate athletic goals and opportunities, school goals, life goals, and how important they are to succeed. Be sure he understands that the harder he works at schoolwork, the better he’ll get at it, and the easier it will become. Offer him some resources, even you as a resource to help him organize. There are tutors that can help with that and the work, too.

Moving Forward With Your Family

Diana, my hope is that this can help you hit the restart button with your son. If he has some attention, focus, or organizational issues, he’ll need support in those areas so be cautious not to fall back into old patterns. Yes, have the structures in place but don’t take over being responsible for his motivation. It will help your son to have some small daily goals in place as well to avoid overwhelm.

And finally, Diana, work to keep a healthy relationship with your ex. We may know that the quality of his parenting is less than what your son needs and his communication can be a turn off to you as well, so keep your expectations low. But, you’ll get the best out of him if you talk with him with respect. Just keep him aware of what you’re doing with your son, you can even solicit ideas from him. What you get is what you get; less than decent, but better than it otherwise might be.

I’m not suggesting you tolerate abuse and if any comes your way, simply disengage with an “I’m sorry you feel that way” and give it up for another day. And while we’re talking about abuse, when someone calls you the b-word or any other insulting name, you’re done helping for a while.

Diana, you could benefit enormously by taking my new online Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle course. The course will support you in getting that all-important new perspective and even the skills to support it.

Right now, Diana, you are very much the fix-it person, the doer, the responsible one. It’s one thing to hear a better approach in a podcast and another to take the time to deepen your understanding and prepare yourself for the many challenges ahead. That's where the course can help you. Plus, you'll get lifetime access, so you can retake and go over the principles at any point now and in the future.

There are two important things I’d encourage you, and everyone reading, to take away from this.

Complex and destructive divorce dynamics are forms of Control Battles and are destructive to child and adolescent growth and development. I’ll add that that they cause Parental Burnout and hurt every member of the family as well. Ask yourself, what is my participation in the choreography or destructive family dynamic? And of course, how can I move forward in a way where I’m no longer participating in the dance? Remember, you can’t make up for the other parent. But if you bring your best self to your son or daughter, that will be wonderful for them and you.

And secondly, how can I not own responsibility for my teenager’s motivation? I can help them see themselves in a positive way, help them set goals and even structures to help them succeed, but the motivation must belong to them.

You can’t make up for the other parent. But if you bring your best self to your son or daughter, that will be wonderful for them and you.Click To Tweet

A special thanks to Diana for your question. I want to invite you all to take advantage of the new resource I’m offering, the Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle parenting course. It is my first version and for that reason, it is extremely comfortably priced. You can have it for life, so you can buy it now and take it later. Or better yet, buy it now, take it now, and let me know what you think.

With COVID surging and the colder weather and the holidays upon us, please take all precautions. Wear a mask and maybe we forgo getting together in person this year so we don’t lose anybody for being together next year.

If you're looking for a resource to help keep you productive at home while also helping you become a better parent, I've prepared a free gift just for you. It’s called Parenting Through Your Child's Second 12 Years. I know you’re thinking, "What the heck, 12 more years of parenting?" Adolescence neurologically, socially and emotionally, and often financially goes to around age 24. Yes, parenting your 20-year-olds is different than the teens. Download my gift and read and learn about the different stages of adolescence and critical strategies parents can use to avoid control battles and best support their adolescents’ quest for happy successful independence.

Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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