How to Approach Your Teen about Taking Responsibility
Q: When I approach my older teenage son to talk about important topics like college, living arrangements, work, etc., he reacts negatively and gets angry and disrespectful with me and my husband. We are afraid that he is not succeeding in the way that he’s capable of doing. We are at the point where we are hesitant to bring up issues that we feel need to be talked about in a mature way. He should be old enough to handle it, but he isn’t. This is causing conflict in our family. What can we do differently?
A: Often, as kids approach adulthood, this might become a common situation. There may be several things that it could be. It sounds like a new behavior and therefore even more confusing. Do you or your husband have any ideas about the reasons for this recent turn of events?
Just as many seniors get senioritis and stop putting their best effort forward right before they graduate, some kids also find that they have spent so much time doing what everyone else is doing in high school that when it gets close to making it on their own, whether in college or in the job market, they haven’t a clue what they really want. If he historically was always trying to please you, this might be what is happening. You might want to give him permission to succeed with his own goals instead of those he might mistakenly think are yours.
Hopefully, both you and your husband have been preparing yourselves to let him go. The problem is that sometimes it might look like failing as he becomes more independent. It is difficult to love a kid who is acting so disrespectfully. Both you and his father need to let him know you love him and trust him to discover his own path while refusing to personally accept his negative behavior.
Your son may be trying to push you away before he leaves home. He may also be signaling that he really is not ready to make it on his own. If he is not ready to take on certain responsibilities, you and your husband need to decide how to respond. He may be telling you he needs more or less help from you than he has received in the past. Again, you and your husband may have similar or different ideas about what might be useful. You could find yourselves in conflict with each other as well as with your son.
It is useful to think of your son’s behavior as his problem rather than yours. Make sure he knows you aren’t taking his problems on as yours to solve. If he has been bright and capable in the past, he can call upon those skills and use them again. Both of you will need to get out of his way so he will have the opportunity to either remember or learn what to do.
If he won’t talk, you can make choices independent of what he might want. Don’t let his unwillingness to communicate keep you from making the important decisions his behavior may be demanding. It would be great if you and his father were in agreement, but each of you can refuse to tolerate the behavior in your own ways.
The decisions you make might influence the time you spend around him, the money you spend on or for him, the power you give him to affect how you feel about yourself, and the way you think about who is really responsible for their own behavior. It may take losing the two of you as a punching bag for your son to realize he needs to figure out what to do.
If he is older and not showing mental health problems, your son may need an opportunity to take care of himself. The mental health problems to look out for might include: too much or too little sleep; drug or alcohol abuse; withdrawal from friends; severe anxiety or depression. If you are worried about these issues, consulting a counselor is a resource the whole family could use. If your son won’t go, you can go to explore your concerns about his welfare. Don’t forget, parents can err on the side of being overly helpful and a counselor can help with that as well.
This sounds like a tough time for you both. It may feel like a great loss. Perhaps the first step for you and your husband might involve grieving the choices your son is making. Until you deal with the fact that the behavior you are now struggling with is not what you anticipated from your past experiences, it might be hard for you to focus enough to respond in a useful way to each other as well as your son.
We all deal with regrets, losses and grief in our own way. Denial can be used by pretending there isn’t a problem or trying to take charge of a problem that we have little ability to control. It wouldn’t be surprising if you and your husband were trying to avoid the whole issue by not dealing with the temper tantrums and pretending that something isn’t wrong. Each one of you might even come up with a different definition of the problem, which could involve blaming your son or each other. Just as he may be pulling away, any of these behaviors could be natural for you.
It also sounds as if the tactics your son is using, anger and aggressive negativity, have affected a previously good relationship. If it existed before, don’t give up on it; it can return again.