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?


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.