Q:My ex-husband and I have pretty much fifty-fifty custody of our 15-year-old son, who has become infected with his father’s total disrespect for me. When he’s with me, he makes it very clear that he does not want to be here. He refuses to do anything I tell him to do or accept any attempt at discipline from me. He curses me and has even pushed me on a couple of occasions. I believe his father is having a very bad influence on him, which is the only reason I continue to exercise my custody rights. Can you suggest anything I can do to remedy this situation?
A:I seriously doubt it. That very blunt answer is based on a lot of experience serving as a court-appointed expert in custody and visitation disputes as well as a good amount of experience doing post-divorce counseling with parents.
If your son was at least five years younger, you might be able to exercise a reasonable amount of effective discipline over him while he was with you and counterbalance your ex-husband’s influence in the process. But I give that zero chance of happening with a 15-year-old who—assuming you are representing matters accurately—is being successfully manipulated by his father into being used as a weapon against you.
A 15-year-old who is cursing and pushing an adult female qualifies as an abuser. Be very clear, please, that you have done nothing to justify that sort of treatment. Furthermore, your son has a high likelihood of transferring that abusive attitude and behavior into future relationships with females, including his unfortunate wife, should he get married. More immediately, however, he is also likely to escalate his mistreatment of you as time goes on. Given that you describe a father who is encouraging his son’s disrespect, you are already at significant risk of physical harm from your son.
You need to protect yourself, and the only way to do that, I’m sorry to say, is for you to do what your son wants you to do: stop requiring him to spend time with you. He is at the age, and beyond, when most family courts would allow him a significant voice if not the final say in the issue of his custody. In light of his anger toward you, I encourage you to pull back completely. Give him plenty of time and space to cool off, but don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Don’t even call him. Simply tell him that you love him and are going to always be there for him if he should ever, in the future, want a relationship with you.
The problem, of course, is a father who is not teaching him that one of the primary virtues of valid masculinity is respect for women. The reality is that your son’s attitude toward you is not likely to improve until he is old enough to understand that he is being manipulated.
I give that advice knowing that for you to follow it will involve a significant amount of pain and perhaps even guilt on your part. However, if my experience serves me well, it will involve far less pain than if you continue trying to take responsibility for something that is not your doing and fix something that only your son can fix—if he ever decides to fix it.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.