Dear Mr. Dad: I'm a single mom and have an issue with my 14-year old son. For the past seven years, since my husband died, it's been just the two of us. He's quite independent and very smart and I try to get him involved in household decisions. For better or worse, I've always been pretty relaxed in my relationship with him and have made an effort to treat him like a friend and equal, rather than a child. Part of the reason is that I feel guilty that I work a lot and that he doesn't have a traditional mom-dad family. In addition to all that, I'm getting married later this year and my fiance will be moving into our house. I know that's going to be a huge change for my son and I know that I need to change our relationship to create some boundaries, but I have no idea how or where to begin.
A: You're in a tough spot. Fortunately, you already recognize that you've created a problem and you seem committed to doing something about it. Unfortunately, you've dug yourself quite a hole and it's not going to be easy to get out of it.
Just so you know, the dynamic you share with your son is quite common. Like you, many single parents feel guilty about depriving their children of having two parents (this is a little more common among divorced single parents, but it also happens with widowed parents). Those feelings of guilt get even bigger if, like you, that single mom or dad works long hours, which also deprives the child of time with even one parent. To make themselves feel better -- and to make it up to their children -- those guilt-wracked parents let the kids get away with just about anything, and rarely discipline them
In the short term, that may have been a fairly effective way of reducing guilt. But in the long term, it creates more problems than it solves. To start with, you're creating one more thing to feel guilty about -- not having been the parent you know, deep down, your son needed you to be. Second, children tend not to see their friends as authority figures. As a result, when you finally get around to laying down the law, he'll probably see you as someone he can steamroller. And, although, he'd never admit it, that's a pretty scary prospect for a child.
While I'm sure you're right that your son is smart and independent, I'm also sure that he's not able to earn a living on his own or get himself to and from school, medical appointments, and everywhere else he needs to go. Having firm boundaries and being held accountable for his choices and his behavior is what will give him the self-confidence that comes from taking on responsibilities, meeting challenges, making mistakes, and suffering the consequences. Without those boundaries, instead of growing into an independent, mature, capable young man, there's a good chance that he'll become overly dependent, irresponsible, and immature. Which is not what either of you wants.
Oh, one more thing. By treating your son as an equal and getting him involved in household decisions, you've also given him the impression that he has a vote (or a veto) in your relationships. There's a good chance he'll cast that vote (or veto) before your new husband has a chance to unpack his bags.
You have to re-establish yourself as the authority in your house -- right now. And the only way to do that is to start establishing rules and boundaries. Most of all, though, you'll need to establish consequences -- and commit to firmly enforcing them. As I said, this won't be easy. But get on it now. The longer you wait, the harder it'll be.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)
(c)2018 Armin Brott
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