Q: I’m concerned about the influence my ex-husband’s behavior might be having on our son who is in middle school. My ex is pretty irresponsible, drinks a little too freely, and has several fairly casual girlfriends. How do I convince my ex to be a better example to our son? And how can I impress on our son that his father’s behavior is not appropriate for a grown-up?
A: You have a very difficult balancing act in front of you. It is true that parental role modeling has a tremendous impact on children, but the sad reality of these situations is that you do not have any control over the influence of an ex-spouse on your child. The ex described above is clearly self indulgent and self focused, and has not taken the most important aspect of being a parent seriously; which is being a good role model. It is also important to keep in mind that parents need to be extremely careful in how they address the other parent’s behavior to the child; anything that denigrates or undermines the other parent’s authority can be seriously damaging to the child. Do not bad-talk your ex-spouse, no matter how inappropriate you feel his behavior is. Your child will figure it out on his own. Children often shy away from parents that are self centered because they cannot give the attention that a child needs. By monitoring your own behavior and actions, as well as focusing on yourself and the type of messages you are sending, you greatly increase the chances that your child will clearly see what parent they want to mold themselves after. Remember, your child is genetically half you and half him. If you criticize the father, you are in essence criticizing the child. In fact, if you attack his father, your son is more likely to go to his defense, even if he basically disapproves of his father’s behavior. There are unfortunately no easy fixes for the situation you describe. Accessing the help of a Family Therapist with a specialty in adolescents and divorce would be of tremendous benefit in your quest to help your son. Even if your son and/or his father do not attend, it can still be very helpful to you.
Q: My daughter just started high school and I’ve started seeing an attitude change. She’s more sullen & sarcastic at home, doesn’t seem to care about soccer (which she’s loved for years) and is prone to emotional outbursts. How do I know if this is just normal teen-age “stuff,” or something more serious?
This is an excellent question and poses one of the greatest challenges to parenting today. We almost always begin by assuming that the child is entering a common phase unique to adolescence, however, we must pay close attention. Adolescence marks a period of time (and the age of onset varies widely among families) when the child must seek their own identity and begin to separate from their parents. This is no easy task as they are filled with conflicting feelings and have little insights to process this, or the ability to verbalize what they feel. All of this can make noticeable changes in your teen, but so can a new involvement with alcohol or other drugs. Your daughter’s ambivalence about soccer is most concerning. An adolescent testing parental priorities is normal and, within behavioral limits actually healthy – but when teens begin to abandon their own priorities, we need to look more closely. There are a lot of factors to consider, including but not limited to:
Has she replaced soccer with other physical activities? Trying new things and changing those associated with childhood need not be a bad thing, but abandonment of a healthy lifestyle is.
Has there been a significant shift in her friends?
Has there been a significant change in her grades at school?
Is she secretive and dishonest?
Does she have altered physical symptoms such as blood shot eyes, frequent sniffles, significant weight loss (or gain), decreased physical hygiene, inappropriate drowsiness or lethargy, slurred speech, strange odors or increased difficulty with memory?
Communication is key, there needs to be an avenue through which you can express your concerns to her clearly and supportively, not in an accusatory manner. Trust is very important, so do not violate the trust unless you have a very probable cause for doing so. Be an observer, keep track of the changes you see and keep in contact with her friends parents. If some of the signs listed above are also present, it might be wise to get an assessment, including an observed and unexpected drug test, from a qualified treatment center or licensed professional therapist specializing in adolescents.