16-Year Old Refuses to See His Mother

My 16-year old son refuses to spend time with his mother (my ex-wife). What should I do?

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DR. RUTHERFORD:  Dealing with a child of this age has its own challenges. It isn’t like when children are toddlers or elementary-age when we could “make” them go to the other parent’s house. A sixteen-year old is much more independent than a small child, of course, and stronger desires as well. We can’t overlook the possibility, too, that the child shouldn’t go to the mother’s.

MOLLY: This question was submitted by a father based in Pensacola, Florida. He elaborated that he and his ex-wife have been divorced for three years. They used to have a shared custody agreement until his son and his ex-wife got into a huge argument and she kicked the son out.

Since then, neither of them have spoken to each other and his son has been very happy just be living with his dad. The son suffered from some depression and anxiety during this period, for which he has gotten professional help and is now doing much better.

The father worries that sixteen is too young of an age for a child to cancel his relationship with his mother and has encouraged both of them to reach out to the other, but they both refuse.

DR. RUTHERFORD: It may be that the father may actually have to let go of the idea of the son having a relationship with his mother. It sounds like neither the son nor the mother want to have any contact at this point. The son is lucky to have a father that loves him and wants to be with him.

MOLLY: Isn’t it essential for a child to have a relationship with his mother if she is alive?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Well in an ideal world that would be true. But clearly there are some deep issues going on between the son and his mother. To push them to be together when they’re not ready to be together will probably exacerbate the problem. I suspect that some of his anxiety and depression is probably related to his relationship –or lack of relationship– with his mother.

MOLLY: Do we need to be concerned about the long-term effects on the boy from not having a mother present in his life?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, we do need to worry about that as there certainly can be long-term consequences on a child’s psyche when there are prolonged absences from a parent. However, in this case, if the two of them are not ready to have contact and actively refuse to, there’s not much else that can be done at this point.

It’s very good that the son is in treatment with a professional counsellor now, and he should continue in therapy because I’m guessing that his symptoms likely have to do with his stormy relationship with his mother. Think about what that would be like to have a mother who refuses to have anything to do with you. He has a lot to work through.

It would be hard to imagine that this primary relationship won’t impact him as he begins to establish his own relationships with women, but good therapy can help him to separate his relationship with his mother from his other relationships in his future.

Kudos to this father who is there for this child. In the business of psychology, we often say that a child needs just one good parent to make it in this world and it sounds like this child has that one good parent on his side.

ding 7 comments on “16-Year Old Refuses to See His Mother

  1. Great response. I would also want to be sure Dad isn’t the Disney Land Dad who lets son do whatever he wants, while Mom wanted a little better behavior from Junior. The case seems like Dad is really the best place for Junior to live, but I would want to check it out! Thanks for your excellent blog! Par

  2. So often I hear, “But, it’s blood. You can’t separate blood.” I think that when we place a biological relative’s position before we place the attributes of that relative, and what they can offer to the child, we are making a big mistake.

    I often consider the decisions we make on behalf of our children. If we knew that a person who lived down the street, and his/her values compromised the well being of children, we would most likely decline invitations for our children to engage with them (with their children, on a social outing, etc.). Yet, often divorced parents confuse the issue and place biological relationship above all else. In a similar scenario, with a person who is unrelated, but wanting to engage with your child being, but the person is questionable in terms of character, or safety, or whatever, the decision would be more clear in how to respond.

    Split families can be tragic, for certain. But we have to look further than the immediate “need” of the adult parent or the “obligation” that we place on ourselves to ensure that we play fair when it comes to the rights of biological parents.

    Thank you for contributing such a thoughtful response to this complicated scenario that is very common.

  3. In our families case, we have 3 teens 13, 14, 15 raised all their lives by their grandparents. Mom is a drug addict and just had baby #9.
    Mom has seen the kids twice in 8 years, rarely calls, they have never had contact with her family though grandparents have offered time after time to have them visit and have open telephone contact.
    Dad out of prison for almost 2 years, raising kids with his girlfriend and now all of sudden, mom is fighting for custody.
    All three of the kids have stated, they do not want to see her, visit her or have anything to do with her.
    Mom didn’t show up for first court hearing, stating paperwork was missing, however, in her statement she mentioned the missing paperwork several times. Last court hearing she was to call in and didn’t and her attorney could not reach her. During that court date, the judge ordered both parents to be drug tested by end of court day. Mom never complied. Dad went immediately and was tested.
    These children are terrified. Not always in my opinion is it best for kids to be with their mom.
    Further information is that mom had a miscarriage due to drugs in the past, 5 of her children live with their fathers, 2 live with her mother.
    I do not see where children in this situation should be forced into seeing a biological parent!

    • Sounds like the court should take into consideration the wishes of the children and the mother’s past lack of contact with them over a number of years, not to mention her drug history. I wonder why she is fighting for custody now, too. Jealousy and money are often the reasons. Sounds like these kids need all the protection they can get.

  4. How do you know that the sons unwillingness to see his mother is not based on a denegratiion campaign if the mother by the father and would yoyr advice change if the mother was prepared and anxious to attend therapy with the son such as to rebuild the relationship between them?

    • Maggie – You’re right, I don’t know if there were a campaign by the father against the mother. I think you’ve made an important suggestion that the mother and son get into therapy and try to sort out there relationship. It might be the most helpful thing this family could do.

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