The Healthy Family Connections Podcast
Episode 258 · Duration: 00:23:27
In this podcast, Neil and Robin respond to a Caroyln Hax column in which a desperate mom wants advice for dealing with her hostile 17-year-old son. Mom is divorced and her son had been living mostly with his father, who just passed away.
Healthy Family Connections, the number one rated family therapy podcast, is sponsored by Neil D Brown, LCSW, and I’m your host, Neil D Brown and I’m here to help you get that enjoyable family you work for every day.
Please remember this podcast is for educational purposes only, it is not a substitute for psychotherapy when you need it.
Today I’m with my podcast co-host Robin Holland.
What do you do when your 17 year old son is hostile towards you and says you don’t love him? We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, Intense Positivity Is Required.
Today I’d like to discuss an advice column published in the Washington Post by a terrific advice columnist Carolyn Hax that appeared on April 16th. I think Carolyn’s response, while thoughtful, misses a critical element that applies to many situations.
Carolyn Hax 4/16/23
Dear Carolyn: My son is 17. His dad and I divorced five years ago. We shared custody. After my son went to high school, he mostly stayed with his dad because he went to school nearby, and I saw him a few times a week for a meal and homework help.
I've lived alone since the divorce.
My relationship with my son has been fraught. I love him to death, but he doesn’t see that. He thinks I have no emotions, I am cold, I don’t love him. He doesn’t talk to me unless he needs something from me. I have said many times I love him so much. I often ask him if he is all right. My son has never told me he loves me. He has never asked how I am doing. He is rude to me and has said very hurtful things. When I help my son with his homework, he gets very irritable.
I can handle these things.
My ex-husband recently died of cancer. That was devastating to my son and to my relationship with him. He is being very difficult. I suggested putting his shoes by the door, and got, “Don’t [expletive] tell me what to do.” I knocked at his door at his dad’s house to announce supper, and he came out and said, “First, this is my house. You need to call first. Second, there is [product] out next week. Can I get it? Third, [friends] and I want to go [away] for spring break. Can I go?”
I also inherited money from my ex, and my son says I am not sharing it with him, which is untrue.
I am not complaining. I am doing what a mother should do. I just don't understand why the disrespect for me and disregard for facts.
His grades fell badly in the past quarter. I hope he will pick up his schoolwork and start thinking for his future.
Overall, my son is a decent kid. He is polite and respectful, just not to me. I don’t know what to do.
- Thanks Robin and before we get to Desperate’s situation, Carolyn’s response to it, and our response, I’d like you to know that if you have a question, you’d like me to address on this podcast, don’t be shy, we’ll all benefit from your question so come on over to my website, neildbrown.com, click on Podcasts then click on “submit a question” easy as pie, and there are no bad questions and I’d love to hear from you. And while you’re there, click on the button that says FREE STUFF. There are several helpful downloadable items I’ve created for you. So come help yourself. Do you have your copy of Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle? That can help you solve or avoid a lot of problems, so don’t miss out.
Now to Carolyn’s response to Desperate (edited):
- It is tough to be 17 because it’s the line, give or take a bit, between adult and child. It’s where parental control feels insulting — anger — and full self-control feels overwhelming — stress.
- The place of choice for a 17-ish-year-old to dump all that anger and stress is on the nearest, safest person. The definition of the nearest, safest person is the one he trusts not to abandon him for behaving horribly. The nearest, safest person is you.
- Meanwhile, your son is not just a regular 17. He's a 17 plus two family traumas: a divorce to usher him into adolescence and a parental death to see him out of it. These things happen, but they require extra care, attention, skills. His grief for his dad no doubt has swamped his already strained adolescent ability to manage it.
- So I suggest you step back far enough from the details to see the big picture of your son. He is a young man in an enormous amount of pain. Staggering. If you talk to him right now about his future, his grades, he’s not going to trust you with his heart. He’s going to see you as cold, and he’s going to fear you don’t love or understand him, even when you think it’s obvious you do.
- Or he’s going to say mean things to provoke you to start an argument to give him an emotional release that he can understand. Fight with mom? Okay — that’s a way to burn off some feelings that are more accessible, less terrifying, than grief.
- So here’s my advice: foremost, counseling. For you (to start). It may take a while to find someone taking new patients, but look first for a provider with experience treating adolescents so you can have guidance on guiding your son.
- And then: patience. The why and the what and the what-next are all centered on his pain. Grief, mostly, but general adolescence as well. (“He doesn’t talk unless he needs something” is the closest thing there is to a universal teen-parental lament.) So be the person you think a teen boy in pain would want. If you can’t imagine that, then be the person you’d want if you were hurting as he is. Would you want to be corrected on your shoes or warned about grades? Or heard, forgiven, hugged.
- Right now you’re focused on your pain and how you’d like him to behave toward you. Flip that. You’re the parent. Being who he needs you to be is “what a mother should do.”
- Think healing, not correcting. The rest will follow from there.
Carolyn rightly identifies the challenges of being 17, particularly in today’s post-quarantine, politically wrought, ecologically challenged world and in this particular case, with the trauma of 1) divorce and 2) death of a parent
And her guidance is “get counseling” with a therapist able to help her address issues with her son. Yes, her son would probably not jump at the chance to go to therapy, particularly with Mom. So that’s good advice.
Be patient and think of healing not correcting.
None of this is bad advice
Yet, It is not in this young man’s best interest to act or be hostile to his mother.
It’s not in his best interest to think he owns a house. It is not in his best interest to fail school.
There needs to be a dramatic change in the Mother-Son relationship.
Here are some things to consider:
- Her son wasn’t being thoughtful, open and respectful towards his mother up until the time of his father’s death and then turning into Linda Blair in The Exorcist
- This was undoubtedly a pattern that had been going on and now only got worse. My guess is there was a pattern we would call a coalition where Dad and Son aligned against Mom.
- Some divorces do a good job of not putting kids in the middle of parental discord and blame, but many do, and this sounds like one of them where Mother is not offered respect from her son and probably not from her former husband either.
- In the vernacular, you could just say Mom has been getting walked on and has been constantly signing up to get walked on again and again. All out of love and duty.
- Everything is about her son. Everything is so “other focused” and by being so other focused, she’s feeding the beast of the Control Battle and that’s a stuck, dysfunctional pattern that interferes with child and youth development, and burns out parents.
- What would Mom be doing if she wasn’t being “other focused”?
- She’d have some limits for herself, and she wouldn’t set herself up for abuse.
He’d been living at Dad’s and Mom saw him a few times a week and helped with homework.
Mom shows up to feed her son and gets raged at?
This young man is not ready to go it alone. So if Mom is just patient, will anything change?
And change is what is needed. Yes empathy and support and grief work and change.
How do we do that here, how do we create change when there is hostile behavior towards a parent?
What kids say vs what they think are not the same thing. “I hate you” can mean:
- I’m not getting my way, or
- I wish I wasn’t so dependent on you; as in I hate that I’m not a grown-up yet. In this case it could mean
- I hate that my father died. Or it might mean
- I hate that my father died and I feel guilty, responsible, not good enough. Or
- I hate that you aren’t as sad as I am. It could even be
- Dad isn't here to hate you anymore, so now it's my job.
I can understand why she feels desperate. Without knowing this young man and what will be most helpful and what exactly to expect from him, here are some basic things she needs to put in place.
Do not take his words, his attitude, or his behavior personally. Don’t plead for his love or argue with him. If he says “You never loved me,” rather than arguing about that and telling him how much you love him, simply acknowledge that’s how he feels and acknowledge that not feeling loved by one’s mother is a terrible feeling.
This next piece of advice doesn’t sound like advice you would easily do, but it could be key: You could say with a strong clear assertive voice:
Regardless of how good or problematic our relationship has been, there should be no question in your mind and there certainly is not in my mind, that I have always loved you. So if you want to talk about my faults or flaws or what you want or don’t want, that’s fine. I’ve got plenty of flaws. But arguing about my love for you is way off base.
He is communicating with his Mom in a very intense and negative way.
In order to change the pattern of Son being on offense and Mom being on defense, Mom is going to have to respond with intense positivity and reclaim her role as parent.
Yes, patience is in order. But patience without change is a recipe for disaster. This young man needs a parent and with Mom on defense, that won’t happen.
Yes Carolyn, think healing not correcting. Yet for healing to go forward successfully, Mom needs to find her voice.
Thanks for tuning in today and special thanks to WP columnist Carolyn Hax for her great column. Parents, you won’t be effective at the many challenges in your lives in a state of burnout. So take time for yourselves. Every problem doesn’t need to be fixed today, and you don’t have to be the solution to every problem. So take care of yourselves. You need it, you deserve it and YOU’RE WORTH IT. Bye for now.
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