Too Much Teen Independence

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 185 · Duration: 00:15:06

Too Much Teen Independence

What do you do when your 17 year old son goes off to live with his girlfriend, isn’t doing well and won’t communicate?Click To Tweet

We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast:  Too Much Teen Independence.

Today we’re hearing from Jessica from Toronto and Jessica writes:

Hi Neil,

We are parents of a 17 year-old son and 20 year-old daughter. We are divorced, and our kids lived with their dad from 2011, but I have remained in the neighborhood and see them regularly. Our son has been in a relationship with an older girl since he was 14. She is three years older than him and in university. When he finished grade 11 last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to live with his girlfriend in a city approximately one hour away from home, cohabiting with her grandparents. When the school year commenced in the fall, he moved with her to live with a family friend with a small child. In all that time, I have only seen him a half dozen times, he responds infrequently to my messages, and won't speak to his father at all. His girlfriend is smart and responsible but has assumed a parental role, even though I have reminded her, many times, that he has parents. She supports him financially, and they both use recreational weed (marijuana is legal in Canada, and there are pot shops everywhere). He has hinted to me that he is depressed because of COVID, is slipping in school (he was an A student) and is dealing with unspecified "trauma" but declines help. I have asked his girlfriend to mediate when he goes silent for months at a time, but she tells me I am interfering in his life and that I am making her relationship with him difficult. Basically, I should mind my own business and let him live his life. She will not give me her home address. I have not seen him in person since Christmas. Should I call the police? I fear that any further "meddling:" on my part would drive him further away, but as his parents, we are legally responsible for his welfare. We are both very committed to our children's well being and have a good relationship with our daughter. We both have safe and welcoming homes. His rejection hurts us, mostly because we don't understand why he is so withdrawn and angry. We hope you can help. Thank you!

Now to Jessica’s question:

Jessica, your son is reaching out on the one hand, and avoiding and running away on the other and it is important that you take action so I’m glad that you’ve written. There are a number of elements here that bear looking at. 

Your son went to live with his father when he was 7. You were available, but you weren’t in a primary parenting role. Even though you were nearby, at 7 or 8 or 9 did he know his needs enough to know when he needed you?  Why wasn’t there shared custody? Did his father have the time and awareness to meet his son’s social, emotional needs?  

I suspect that your son wasn’t getting what he needed, and when he turned 14, a 17 year old girl who had her own issues, showed up as the person he was going to attach to.  Sure, 14 year old often date and have romantic partners, but a three year age difference for a 14 year old implies something more than a simple crush or early experimenting with romantic involvement.  There is a power differential between a 17 year-old and a 14 year-old.  That relationship was allowed to continue and while parents trying to end romantic relationships can be quite challenging, think Romeo and Juliet, parents can monitor and set limits and structures around a relationship that will keep it safe and let it die a natural death.  But the relationship continued and then at age 17, you write that, “he decided to live with his girlfriend…away from home.”   Who allowed it and why?  Was there any thought that this was a good idea or was it simply a parental belief that they couldn’t do anything about it?  If the law is--parents are responsible for their children’s welfare until the age of 18--then as parents you of course had power and authority.  But if you hadn’t been using it prior, it might be hard to know how to use it at that point.

It sounds as though your son wasn’t getting the structure and support he needed at home.  I have no idea why or what form that took.  Just that he fell under the influence of an older girl who has acted as his primary support and influencer. Little by little, she gained control and parents lost control, and your son hasn’t developed self-control, his own sense of purpose and direction and now he’s floundering.

At this point, it sounds as though she is controlling him. When the young woman tells you to stay away because you’re ruining their relationship, she actually has it backwards.  She should stay away because she is ruining his relationship with you and that’s the relationship he really needs. 

Now your son has indicated that he is depressed; he is abusing cannabis, his grades have slipped and he is suffering from unspecified trauma.  And, he goes silent and doesn’t communicate for long periods of time.  He refuses to communicate with his father at all.  Your outreach to his girlfriend has been met with hostility and an unwillingness to even let you know where they live let alone encourage him to communicate with you.  You tell her that he has parents but the truth is that she is functioning in the parental role, supporting him financially and living with him, two things parents normally do with their 17 year old.  And while she has overtaken that role, it sure doesn’t seem like it’s a good or healthy thing for your son. Jessica, I interpret your son’s mixed signals as him saying I need you but I don’t trust you.  He may also be saying, I don’t know how to end my relationship with this controlling young woman. So with a loss of his parents, not knowing how to get out of a controlling relationship, and not knowing who he is or where he’s going, cannabis involvement, and some unspecified trauma, he’s not in great shape and we need to do something.

If your son were over 18 as terrible as this situation is, you would have no legal recourse but with his status as a minor, you do have both legal and moral responsibility.Click To Tweet

So now, how do you establish trust and use benevolent parental authority to help him?  Using parental authority should not be considered meddling but yes, how do we get involved at this late date but this very important moment.  

You ask if you should call the police.  I’m not sure how the police would act in your province or city.  You could talk with them and see.  My advice is to speak ASAP with both an attorney and a therapist.  It wouldn’t be hard for an investigator to locate them.  Your son’s girlfriend is no doubt breaking laws by keeping him away from you. 

First, establish what your rights are and how, if push comes to shove, what actions you can take.  Once that’s established, then with the guidance of an experienced therapist, one familiar with challenging adolescent and young adult family situations, you can create an intervention that will bring a warm and caring message along with a clear mandate for coming home to either your home or his father’s home.  Alternatively, he could go, if his condition and attitude warrant it, to a program something like a wilderness program that could get him moving, get him off of cannabis, and get him communicating about his issues and feelings so that as his parents, you would know what’s going on with him, what his trauma is, and how to begin to understand and reconnect with him in a healthy way.  Make sense Jessica?

So, parents, and folks who work with families, kids need to feel safe, seen and soothed in order to feel secure and form secure attachment. Click To Tweet A secure attachment in childhood and adolescence is critical to healthy adult relationships. 14 year old and even 17 year old need parents to stay connected with them and help them make healthy personal decisions.  It isn’t healthy for parents to over control and dictate every move a child or teenager makes.  On the other side of the spectrum, it isn’t healthy for parents to abandon active parenting and not provide the limits and structure kids need.  Those kids are likely to feel abandoned, even if they seem to be pushing their parents away.  

Thanks for tuning in today listener, I really enjoyed talking with you and special thanks to you Jessica for your question. 

Being parents in this pandemic is incredibly challenging and there is a lot of #parentalburnout as well as child and teen depression.  Have empathy and compassion for yourselves and find some really good personal and healthy ways to self-care. 

You need it, you deserve it, and you’re worth it. Bye for now.


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