Dear Dr. V,
A year ago my husband of 19 years and I divorced. We have two children, a girl, 6, and a boy, 14. It’s been awful for all of us, but I think my son is taking it especially hard. I feel like I’m watching him change into a person I don’t know anymore. I don’t how to talk to him; I don’t really feel like we’re communicating anymore. He wears all black, he never comes out of his room when he’s home. I know the divorce has something to do with this, but could there be more? I’m worried about drugs; I’m worried that he might be depressed and wanting to hurt himself. Help. I’m scared.
As a mother myself, my heart goes out to you. You must feel beyond overwhelmed, dealing with your own emotional fallout from your divorce, on top of the fear, sadness, and, I would assume, guilt for the issues now happening with your son.
Though likely your son’s behavior is at least in part a reaction to your divorce, I would advise against beating yourself up for it. First, it is a waste of the energy you need to care for your children and yourself in this difficult period. Second, you don’t deserve to feel guilty. You are seeking out ways to help your son and be a better parent, and this proves to me that you are a loving, responsible mother.
Teenagers are anything but simple creatures. While the behavior you discussed is certainly troublesome and without a doubt warrants immediate action on your part, it’s also standard issue teenage behavior (outside of actually smelling alcohol or pot on your son, or discovering he’s stealing from you). Add to this the emotional tsunami of a divorce and it would be puzzling if your son wasn’t acting strange.
As a parent, it is imperative you remain active, involved and aware of what your son is doing both at home, when he’s out and when he’s online. First and foremost, I would recommend sitting down and trying to have a conversation with him. In this conversation, try to ask as many questions as possible, without making it seem like an interrogation. Ask how he feels, what his perception of the divorce was, and so on. Give him an opportunity to speak, and give yourself a chance to listen. As you said you are already having difficulty communicating with each other, bringing in the objectivity of a neutral third party, such as a therapist, could help get the ball rolling.
I think you also need to consider what your boundaries as a parent are, and what you might be willing to put up with if it meant fostering communication and hopefully respect between you two. Of course, I don’t mean allowing your son to stay out all hours or to tolerate any illegal activity, drug or alcohol use at any time. However, if your relationship improved, could you accept him wearing all black, for instance? I ask this because your son is now at time in his life where he is struggling to define who he is as an individual; aka “teenage rebellion.” So while the black clothing, when taken with the other behaviors you’ve described is certainly a red flag, perhaps if the other issues were resolved then this would not irk you so? In this way your son could feel as if his individuality was respected, and you would have the gift of an open channel of communication. What I’m ultimately getting at here is to choose your battles.
However, you are still his mother, and as such, it is your duty to exercise all the powers of your office, as it were. Of course, you should ask your son up front about your concerns regarding depression and drug use. But you can’t stop there. You are still his parent, and still responsible for his welfare. You’ll have to be the “bad guy” and find a time to discreetly search through his room. Check his drawers, his pockets, and potential hiding places for anything he shouldn’t have.
But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. If your son has a Facebook or Myspace page, I think it would benefit you greatly to check them out and see “who” he is online. Many times, teenagers reveal more about themselves in a single online profile page then someone could get out of them in hours of conversation. As a parent I’m sure you are well aware of the dangers cyberspace can present to children, but from an adolescent’s point of view, this same environment can seem like the only place where they can really be themselves, and honestly express what is in their hearts and minds.
Even if your son is not getting into any trouble, I think it could still behoove you to try and see if he does have any kind of online identity, as it could provide you with a window into his thoughts and feelings. If you, like many parents, are not quite as tech savvy as your children, you may want to ask the tech staff at your son’s school for assistance. In fact, if there is a computer teacher at your son’s school, they may be able to provide a valuable resource for educating yourself in this department. Especially since in a few years your daughter will be finding her way to Facebook (or whatever’s replaced Facebook by that time), and I’m sure you’ll want to be ready when that time arrives. This article may provide you with a useful starting point: http://www.commonsensemedia.org/facebook-parents
In handling your son’s issues, please don’t let your daughter fall by the wayside. Though she is younger and her behavior may not be as extreme as your son’s, I’m sure she is feeling just as overwhelmed and upset as the rest of you. In fact the experience could be a good deal more frightening for her because of her younger age. Be sure she’s comforted and reassured regularly as well.
We are all unique individuals, and we all react to trauma and upsetting events in different ways. Because of the extreme nature of what you and your family have gone through, I really think professional help could benefit all of you greatly, both on the individual and family levels. You are dealing with an unbelievably full plate, emotional turmoil piled on top of the logistical and pragmatic stress of dissolving a marriage and all the horrible ripples that flow out from that. Keep yourself and your family focused on love, empathy and tenderness for each other and you will all come out the other side, and stronger as a family for it.
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