Paula Subject: Teen son needs help
Question: We've been having "issues" with our son for about six months now. He used to be the model child, now, though, he's a 17-year-old in love with his first girlfriend and testing his independence. We've had "other issues" concerning him stealing from his job and getting fired, now he wishes he had the job back, is in love with this girl, etc.
He's agreed (at the girl's encouragement) to go to counseling, but they're "booked" quite often, and he's only been in once so far, next appt. is about 2 weeks away. His girlfriend is going to see her family in Chicago and he wants to go with them for 5 or 6 days. I told him 1) he can't afford it, 2) WE can't afford it; and 3) he's just starting a new job, so not a good idea.
Then he said he can't afford it unless he has help. When I asked him what he meant by that, he said "Grandma can help." She's 70 years old, off of work for the summer, so no paycheck, and this 17-year-old boy wants to hit her up for money?
Then he says that his girlfriend is due back home from Scotland this coming Thurs., and we return on Sat. from our vacation. He'd like to know if she can come over sometime after 4 or so and go out (the same Sat. we get back).
I told him I had no problem with that. Then he said he'd like to go out and spend the night at her house in the guest room. I told him no. He said: "why not? It's not like we're having sex or anything." I told him that he lived here and she lived there. I said he could go out with her that night, come home and go to bed, and then go see her again the next morning.
He didn't like the idea of me turning him down on everything he asked for. He was in quite a mood because of it. I'm feeling like I must be a horrible parent, but I honestly feel he is asking for things not "right" for someone of his age -- or of his recent behavior (the stealing/lying). I find myself doubting myself, my abilities, and my values all the time.
Am I too hard, too easy, too strict, too inconsistent? I know he's almost 18, so I don't want to be too harsh. I know he needs to start learning to make wise choices on his own without our having to tell him no all the time. If we don't tell him "yes" sometime, how is he ever going to learn to make the decisions himself? However, in light of his recent "decisions" I'm not so sure I trust him to make the wise choice.
He's lucky his previous employer chose not to press charges. Are we being too harsh about the spending the night at her house stuff? We're trying to develop our trust back in him, but it seems as if whenever he doesn't get his way, he becomes irritable and sulks. This is not the way I'd behave if I had screwed up and was trying to make amends and earn trust and respect back. (No, drugs are not a factor.)
Answer: Dear Paula,
I see the "problem" as this, "He used to be the model child." You were really getting a break as a parent to have made it till your son was 17 with a "model child." This is the hard part of parenting, being disapproved of by your child. I hear a lot of self doubting and questioning whether or not you are doing the "right thing," as a parent based upon your child's reaction. Don't keep going in this direction.
Yes, you son is separating from you and you will need to look at your own grieving issues surrounding this entire element of his life. However, he needs to deal with consequences of his own choices and he has lied to you and therefore broken the trust between you and him. This is a critical lesson as you will continue to love him no matter what, the world however will not.
He needs to learn the value of trust in relationships and he is "cutting his teeth," so to speak with his behavior towards his parents. The good news is this is an opportunity for him to learn all he needs to know about how relationships work, the bad news is this is only the beginning and you probably thought you were done at 18.
You are finished legally, financially and in nearly every other physical respect however, he still needs you more than ever to give him consistency in how you respond to him. He needs and even craves your approval although he may not admit it.
Think back to your own parents and how you felt when you disagreed with each other. Most adults still want their parents to approve of their decisions and experience conflict when this doesn't happen. So parents are important way past the adolescent stage even though they are mostly unaware of this importance. It sounds to me like you are doing a fine job and need to continue to do so.
One suggestion I have is to find as many areas as you can agree with you son on to do so and make it loud and clear you do agree or approve. The reason for this is because he is testing you and seems bent on pushing the limits in ways you are not going to approve of or agree with finding some where to bond is essential to keep this relationship strong past these years and into his adult years.
Also realize just because he looks a grown up at 17 doesn't mean he is any more grown up than he was a 2 emotionally. You mention he becomes irritable and sulks, well allow him plenty of room to do both and he will get tired of this behavior. Also determine where he learned this type of behavior to respond to not getting his own way. Children rarely do things they see don't work for someone else. This is the hard part and I have a sense you are going to make it through. Most of the time things get back to a normal state at say age 22.
M Kay Keller