I cannot cope with my teenage son. He is my youngest, aged 14, with an older brother and sister, both in their early 20s, who have happy, successful, independent lives and with whom I have a lovely relationship. At home there’s me, my son and my husband, who has been in my son’s life since he was four. My son is popular and doesn’t struggle at school. We were incredibly close as mother/son relationships go.
I was not married to his father. When we split I took only the children; he kept the house and failed to pay maintenance until the children were older, when he remarried. His wife is lovely; my husband and I babysit their new baby.
My youngest son has hit the teenage years but it’s different from his siblings, most notably in the way he compares me with his father so unfavourably. His dad is the party man, not worrying about homework or bedtimes, letting our son be out at all hours and indulging him. My son hardly interacts with us at home, saying I am horrible, he doesn’t like me, and that he lives with me only out of convenience. His dad, however, is “amazing” and I could learn from him.
I usually grit my teeth, but recently I cracked and shouted unforgivable things – such as his father not being there for parents’ evenings, sports days, sick days. To be despised in such an outright way is breaking me. I am ashamed I bad-mouthed his father, but I was sick of hearing how great he is. I fear I will do this again and need help to cope more appropriately.
Your son is saying he doesn’t like you, but it isn’t that simple. I consulted child and adolescent psychotherapist Ruth Glover (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), who agreed with you that having had a close mother/son relationship makes the “hatred” feel harder to bear (though it will make things better in the long run). Glover thought you might be struggling with the fear of “losing your last child, and thus your sense of being a mother”.
I wondered how accurate your memory is of life with your older two children? Did the fact you still had your youngest at home when they were going through this stage cushion the blows of their adolescence?
Adolescence can be a time when “anything not quite worked through in the early years can resurface”, Glover said. So things that happened years ago, that you think they weren’t bothered about, can suddenly rear their heads. It’s also a time when it’s essential that children start to discover themselves and begin to separate from their parents. “Otherwise,” Glover said, “they would never want to leave home.”
Your son may have noticed his dad has not been there at times, and this may have led to him feeling unwanted. “He may,” Glover said, “be making you feel rejected, because that’s how he’s feeling.”
Children “throw out” uncomfortable feelings they cannot process (adults do this, too). They project them on to adults, often picking a “safe bet” adult – in this case you – over one they feel isn’t so reliable (his dad).
And the new baby is significant. “The timing of the baby, coinciding with his own early adolescent struggle with identity and where he fits, may be hard for your son.” He may also fear that his dad will reject him again for the baby.
I asked Glover if what you said in your outburst was so very wrong. “It’s understandable and OK to show you have limits,” she said. “Your son may have been pushing for you to say those things. He probably knew them already and was struggling. And then you’ve reinforced what he already feels.”
But don’t panic! Try to find a good time to tell him you are sorry for what you said (maybe while you are driving, so you are not face to face in a confrontational way) and you can see he’s angry – though he may want to think about the things he said, too. You don’t need to say more than that.
Glover wondered whether there was traction in “working with his dad, trying to talk to him away from your son”. But he may not want to help and may enjoy the division. It’s likely, thought Glover, “that your son is idealising his relationship with his dad, because it doesn’t feel very stable”.
When you start to lose your temper, remind yourself that he’s trying to communicate how he feels by making other people feel the same way.
• Send your problem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence