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.

When Your Ex- Is Not The Best Role Model For Your Kids

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My kid desperately wants to be like his father (my ex-husband) but his father is not a good role model. What can I do?

@thinkstock_Polka Dot ImagesDR. RUTHERFORD (Molly’s mom): It’s important that a divorced parent is careful about what she says about the other parent to their child.

It would be best if she tried to act neutral and avoided saying outright negative things about the ex-spouse. As the child gets older, he’s likely to figure out what kind of person his father is on his own from observing his father’s behavior.

MOLLY: This question was asked by a mother in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She explained that she is divorced and wants to tell her 9-year old son that he is loved by his dad and that he of course should love his dad, too, but that his father does not always model good behavior due to his drug use and dishonesty, among other things. She doesn’t want to turn her son against his father, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want her son to emulate him either. What should she do?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I don’t think she needs to tell her son to love his dad; that’s really for him to work through. Her job here is to avoid saying negative remarks about her child’s father.

If she is critical of the boy’s father, it will backfire on her as the child will dig in and defend his father to the end. And he will likely also stop talking to her about his dad.

Instead, if she remains neutral, her son will feel freer to express both positive and negative feelings about his dad’s behavior as he witnesses it and experiences the effects.

As the child gets older, he’s likely to want talk to his mother about things he sees and experiences the father doing if he feels safe doing so with her. Her job is to be sympathetic to her son; as events unfold,she shouldn’t ever deny what the father has done but should instead focus on being supportive of the son as he sorts out his relationship with his father.

MOLLY: When should she tell him the truth about his father?

DR. RUTHERFORD: The best time for that is when her son actually asks for the information. While the truth can very important for children to understand, the timing of divulging such information is just as important in terms of the child’s age and if he’s ready to deal with the information. He might not ask for this information until he is a teen, in his twenties, or even older. She should answer her son’s questions about his father honestly and sensitively when they come while remembering that children do not necessarily need to know all of the sordid details about their parents’ bad behavior.

MOLLY: What if the child witnesses some bad behavior, and reports back to his mom. For instance, “Daddy drinks a lot.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: This is when it’s important that you are honest with your child.  Denying the child’s perception of reality is not a good thing because it makes him doubt his own perceptions. If the child is 9 or 10 years old, the mother could answer, “Yeah, I think so too. He loves you very much but he is trying to deal with his problems.”

When the child is a teenager, there’s no denying what’s going on. Kids are smart and observant so I think the important thing is to be honest. Negotiating your child’s relationship with someone over whom you have no control can be challenging, but we do have control over our own behavior. This mom can do the best she can for her son by modeling good behavior herself, not talking badly about her ex-, listening to her son with a sympathetic ear when he needs to talk about his dad, and being available to support her son.

Preparing Kids For A Divorce

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It looks like my husband and I are going to get divorced. How should I explain it to my son?

MOLLY: This was submitted from a reader in Denver, Colorado. She added that she wants to make sure her son is mentally prepared should they get a divorce.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): I think that you’re right to think ahead and get as mentally prepared as you can. Although truthfully, I don’t know if you can become totally prepared for telling your child about a divorce. It’s really one of the hardest things for a parent to do.

So there are a couple things she will want to do as a parent. First she will want to lay it out that basically that this is an agreement between the parents and it has absolutely nothing to do with the child.

I know that that’s advice that everybody gives but it’s really important advice. It’s important to say this out loud to the child and reassure him that it’s not his fault and that he has nothing to do with this decision.

More often than not I’ve found that children are most concerned about what’s going to happen to them. So that’s something she’ll want to spell out to her child. Where he’s going to live? Where is his home base going to be? When is he going to see his Dad or his Mom? The parents should work out those issues about how the child is going to live before they tell their son the news so that he has a clear idea about what’s going to happen to him. That’s the most important way to allay his anxieties and fears.

She’ll want to offer security to him: reassure him that he’s not going to get lost in the mess and that his parents are going to work as hard as they can together to limit the amount of disruption in his life.

MOLLY: You probably don’t do this until you’ve truly decided to get separated, right?

MOM: Right, you would not do this until the couple has made the final decision and somebody has figured out where they are going to move to when they leave the family house.

The other thing to consider is the age of the child (in this case I don’t know the age). That would determine how much information to give.

It’s very important to answer a child’s questions as honestly as possible, without getting into details that a child doesn’t really need to know about, that are of a more personal nature.

MOLLY: So keep the conversation at a high level?

MOM: Yes, take the high ground?

MOLLY: Now of course, you’ve told me before, the mantra in a separation or a divorce should be: “don’t speak badly about the other parent. “

MOM: Yes, that’s a one big No-No. As in, never. Never speak badly about the child’s other parent. First of all, it’s doing a disservice to the child as well as to the other parent, and secondly, criticism will usually boomerang back on the parent who tells the child these things because the child will automatically want to defend the other parent. If you think you’re making a good case for yourself, you’re really not. Negative talk about the ex will interfere with the relationship with your child.

MOLLY: What are the long-term issues she will need to be aware of?

MOM: There are a lot of long-term effects of divorce and how parents tell their child about the divorce is important because it’s something kids usually remember. The long-term consequences very much depend on how much fighting is going on between the parents. Studies have shown that the divorce itself isn’t so much the issue that plagues the kids but rather the continual fighting that goes on between the parents that is much more distressing to them.

MOLLY: Should the parents sit down together to tell the child?

MOM: Well, I think that people do it differently. I don’t think there are any rules about that. Sometimes one parent refuses to sit down and tell the child because they don’t want the divorce in the first place. It’s really something that the parents have to work out between themselves but should be agreed upon ahead of time.