My Young Adult Son Is Controlled By His Mother


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 153 · Duration: 00:17:09

My Young Adult Son Is Controlled By His Mother

What do you do when your 20-year-old son won’t spend time with you, a caring Dad, because he’s afraid of his mother’s wrath?

Today we’re answering a question from Michael from the Bay Area in California. Michael writes:

My Young Adult Son Is Controlled By His MotherGreat podcast (He’s referring to the June 10th podcast titled, "My Husband Pitts My Daughter Against Me."). It touches on an initial pattern that appears to be an early indicator of parental alienation syndrome. In this case, both parents are still communicating and live together in a co-parenting partnership. Through divorce and separation, this isn't always possible - where respectful bilateral communication has broken down. My question is: when communication is no longer effective with a co-parent, and the triangulation has gone on for years resulting in parental estrangement (in this case from a normal, caring father)… how does one regain a relationship with an only child (a boy in his 20s in college), still living with his mother? My son is not granted permission to see me and has kept a safe distance for the past 5yrs (he lives 10miles away).

I've kept the door open and he occasionally vocalizes his mother’s disapproval of him wanting to share any time with me. In the last 6yrs when he was an adolescent he had to sneak out of her house late at night to avoid her wrath. He told me this in tears when he was 15. What kind of conversation can I possibly have with him when the subject makes him very uncomfortable and puts his desire to love both parents at odds - but risks the relationship with his now primary caretaker. My son's tendency has been to avoid that.. and therefore easier (on him) to avoid contact with me.

While your podcast shines a light on co-parenting communication challenges, it shines a light on what is more broadly known as parental alienation syndrome. As you probably know, there are thousands of parents who have been estranged and alienated (along with their extended families) as a result of this. Long-winded question but wanted to give you the full context.

Great question and thanks for sharing your situation Michael. This is indeed a challenging situation and guess what, I see situations with parental alienation syndrome all too often. I know parents who go to great lengths to avoid badmouthing a parent who is hostile towards them in a mature effort to not triangulate their child. And then there are parents who put so much pressure on their child that it places them squarely in the middle and, worse than that, often puts their emotional needs on the backs of their children.

Independent Young Adults

What is surprising about your situation Michael is your son’s age. He's in his early 20’s and still afraid of his mother’s wrath, and you describe his mother as his "primary caretaker." This is pretty messed up. Even though he’s living with her, college kids are young adults and even though young adulthood is the last stage of adolescence, they should be pretty independent creatures.

Michael, if what you believe to be the case is, in fact, the case, that your son is afraid of upsetting his mother and being on the receiving end of her anger at age 20 or more, this isn’t just a case of parental alienation syndrome, it’s a case of a youth so dominated by and enmeshed with his mother, that he can’t grow up and become his own person.

All the way through high school, youth live under the direct supervision of their parents. After high school, parental supervision goes way down and kids become responsible for their own choices and decisions; what to do, when to do it, with whom they’ll spend time, where to live, etc. Many young adults can’t afford to live on their own and if they’re going to college as your son is, then they most often require financial support from their parents. If they go to college close to home, living at home while going to school is the least expensive option. When they live at home, there can be some challenges in the relationship where kids often want to keep hours that are very different from their parents and don’t want to be involved in home chores and there can be real dissonance in the parent – young adult lifestyle differences and in their relationship. But Michael, the control that your son’s mother has over him is quite pathological.

After high school, parental supervision goes way down and kids become responsible for their own choices and decisions; what to do, when to do it, with whom they’ll spend time, where to live, etc.Click To Tweet

Getting To The Root Of The Problem

Let’s take a step back and see where this is coming from. You say that at age 15 he snuck out of the house to visit you in tears that he had to do that to avoid his mother’s wrath. What did you do then Michael? What have you done during the last 6 or so years? You say on the rare occasions that you do interact with him, he doesn’t want to talk about the pressure from Mom or his lack of contact with you because it makes him uncomfortable.

Michael, I’m going to go way out on a limb here with what I think has gone on and then I’ll tell you what I think you can and should do about it. If you are correct that his mother will go nuts with anger if she’s aware of his communication with you, then you are describing a pretty damn disturbed woman here. Her off-the-charts, unreasonable anger is undoubtedly related to why you divorced. You took it as long as you could, but you couldn’t go on with it and you left. I’m hearing that you have been pretty inactive in dealing with the situation, that you’ve been avoiding her and interacting with her, and somehow didn’t engage or successfully engage in fighting for your son when you left. It sounds to me like she is over-controlling and emotionally out of control and you are conflict avoidant and don’t take control when you need to and now you are the victim of “parental alienation syndrome.” Your son has your quality of being conflict-avoidant and that is why his mother has so much control over him and you. You are both conflict avoidant.

At this point, I’m concerned that your son could be pretty messed up; possibly depressed, lacking in self-esteem, fear-based, conflict-avoidant, and otherwise not prepared to enthusiastically invest in himself and have some fun growing himself and preparing himself for full-on independent adulthood.

Michael, we want to change the status quo. So, stop thinking of this as parental alienation syndrome, which it is, but think of it as your son needing help emancipating out of his pathologically enmeshed relationship with his disturbed, controlling mother. This is less about his not having time with or feeling free to have a relationship with his father, and more about his need to feel free to make his own decisions, feel good about himself and feel empowered to learn and grow. If I’m wrong and he is a healthy kid except that he isn’t allowed to see you without upsetting his mother, then my guess is that he’s simply using that as an excuse. Going to college he would be in charge of his own time and making time to see you without telling his mother would be pretty easy. So his mother isn’t his primary caregiver, she’s his primary prison guard and your son needs help getting out of jail.

Opening Up Communication

Not knowing your son, it’s unclear to me the best way to communicate that with him. Here are some concepts you can use to move forward with, but the two things you need to address are:

  1. That you have been too passive and conflict-avoidant dealing with the situation and helping your son.
  2. That you will need to find ways to supportively communicate with your son and help him begin to take action on his own behalf.

Here are a few concepts and ideas to share with him:

  • You are a young adult and are entitled to make your own decisions in life. Somehow fear of your mother’s anger still controls you.
  • Your mother’s anger and fear of your mother’s anger has been a constant factor in your life. That’s not right. It’s traumatizing, and you need and deserve professional treatment to deal with it.
  • I’ll be happy to make a therapy appointment and you can either go alone or we can go together.
  • I know I’m part of the problem and have not been a strong enough influence in your life.
  • I know it’s emotionally difficult for you to talk with me, but I’m here for you anytime and nothing you say to me will offend me. Even if you’re angry with me.
  • I’d like to see you more regularly and will be flexible to meet with you anywhere you like.
  • What are your thoughts about moving out on your own?
  • What concerns do you have for yourself?
  • What concerns do you have for your mother?
  • I’ll be happy to help support you if you decide to move out.

Michael these are the messages that I think can help. The focus needs to be on helping your son recover from his fear and pathological enmeshment with his mother.

So folks, parents suffering from parental alienation syndrome, and folks helping parents deal with it, yes putting kids in the middle is plain wrong. It’s wrong for the parents and more importantly, it’s wrong for the kids. Unfortunately, it happens all the time and at the extreme, it becomes parental alienation syndrome where a child or teenager is turned against a parent. When parents are the alienated parent, they need to find ways not to buy into it, and take action against it without feeding into it. I’m sure I’ll get more questions about this syndrome and we can look more deeply at it then.

Parents: Putting kids in the middle is plain wrong. It’s wrong for the parents and more importantly, it’s wrong for the kids.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today everyone and special thanks to Michael for sharing his situation with us.

During this time of profound disruption, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Your local mental health resources are very much there, mostly using video platforms, and that works just fine, phones work too, and sometimes you can be seen in person as well.

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.

If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website and shoot me an email or give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk with you.

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

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