Q: I have been divorced from my children's father for three years now. My problem is that my teen-age son, who is 15, reminds me of my ex-husband in not so flattering ways.
He is lazy, he procrastinates and he gets nasty to me sometimes when I ask him to do reasonable things around the house, such as take out the garage twice a week. I think my husband eggs him on by commiserating with him about how demanding, controlling and unreasonable I am.
I am afraid my husband is turning him into the oblivious, self-centered, immature person that he is. What should I do?
A. It can certainly be upsetting to see character traits in your son that remind you of your ex-husband. It is extremely challenging when divorced mothers parent their sons who bear a strong resemblance to the ex-husband, either physically, emotionally or both, and it can be a difficult and emotionally draining task. One has to be continually mindful of who you are seeing, the ghost of your ex-husband, or the real presence of your son.
An interesting dynamic can arise in these situations, which I call character assassination by proxy. This means that you blame your husband for creating the negative traits in your son, and you remind your son that he is similar to his father in negative ways. This can only result in your son being defensive, and gravitating toward his father who seems to accept him and even encourage the development of his unique character. It sets up a "dad is good, mom is bad" dichotomy.
A better way to treat this dilemma is to separate out your hurt, anger and anguish about the divorce from your parenting strategies.
You may have many negative appraisals and conclusions about your husband and his character at this point. Think about those things in your head as loudly as you like, but never say them, at least in front of your children. Thinking things to yourself acknowledges the validity of your experience and discharges the negative energy created by the emotional pain.
However, when confronting your son, contain your comments to just what your son is doing. Of course, focus as much as possible on the positive, and help him feel proud about what he does well.
You may need to have a consistent set of rules for the house that you enforce quietly and with authority. It is helpful if your husband backs you up with the same rules in his house. If he won't, don't let that stop you from designing a schedule for your son that provides him with reinforcements and consequences to his behavior. A family therapist or psychologist can help you define these rules and get back up to confront his resistance.
Try to see your son as separate from your ex -husband as best you can. You may have unrealistic standards for your son, because you want so much for him to be "different" and a better person than you saw your husband to be. He may just be a typical adolescent male who is defying authority and learning how to get his needs met within a new family system. Your son defines his self-image and good feelings about himself by identifying with his father. It is very problematic to define his father to him as a bad influence. He will only take that to mean you feel he is bad, worthless, incompetent, etc., as well.
Get as much support as you can to cope with this tough situation. You deserve it.
Janet Hibel has a diplomate in counseling psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.