My ex-part­ner is pres­suris­ing me to pun­ish my son

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - John Sharry Send your queries to health@irish­times.com

QMy son who is 14 is a great young man and I’m very proud of him. He’s been through a bit of a rough time as his mum and I sep­a­rated just over three years ago and he took it a bit hard ini­tially, though now is cop­ing much bet­ter. I see him ev­ery week­end and he stays over one night a week as well. The trou­ble is that his mum is con­stantly com­plain­ing to me about him. She says he is very cheeky to her and is drag­ging his heels around home­work. She seems to be fight­ing with him a lot. Now she wants me to get on his case about his school work and to pun­ish him over his “cheek” to her, but I think she is over-re­act­ing and mak­ing things a lot worse in terms of how she deals with him. Of course I feel that his ed­u­ca­tion is re­ally im­por­tant, how­ever I don’t want to com­pro­mise my time with him by con­stantly giv­ing out. My son spends a lot of his time com­plain­ing about his mother when he is with me, say­ing she goes “men­tal” with him and he wants me to side with him. What am I to do?

AA­gree­ing how to dis­ci­pline chil­dren is hard enough for par­ents liv­ing to­gether but poses par­tic­u­larly chal­lenges when you are sep­a­rated. You are right to take a pause and to con­sider thought­fully how best to re­spond. It sounds like your son and his mother are in an on­go­ing stress­ful ar­gu­ment about home­work and you are be­ing drawn in and pres­sured to “take sides”. In or­der to be help­ful, the key is to not im­me­di­ately jump in and take sides, but in­stead spend time try­ing to un­der­stand both their per­spec­tives so you can help sort things out.

Take time to un­der­stand your ex-part­ner’s con­cerns

It sounds like your son’s mother is stressed by the con­flict over home­work. Un­der­stand­ably, she is up­set about her son be­ing cheeky to­wards her and there may be other stresses go­ing on for her. Be­ing the par­ent car­ing for your son most of the time, means that she is likely to carry the bur­den of some of the less glam­orous as­pects of par­ent­ing (eg en­sur­ing home­work is done) and also to face the brunt of your son’s anger and teenage re­bel­lion. For ex­am­ple, it could well be that your son is on his “best be­hav­iour” when he is with you so you don’t ex­pe­ri­ence all the prob­lems. In ad­di­tion, when par­ents are sep­a­rated, of­ten the chil­dren ide­alise the par­ent who they see less of­ten, and re­serve their anger for the par­ent at home.

Com­mu­ni­cate with your for­mer part­ner

The key to good co-par­ent­ing is com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Though this can be par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing for sep­a­rated par­ents, work­ing hard to com­mu­ni­cate gives you abil­ity to sort out prob­lems. Such com­mu­ni­ca­tion could in­volve ar­rang­ing to meet with your son’s mother to talk things through, or it could be done by phone, email or text, or even by mak­ing the most of a brief con­ver­sa­tion at the time of han­dover. In chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions it can be use­ful to have a third party such as me­di­a­tor help fa­cil­i­tate this con­ver­sa­tion. When hav­ing these con­ver­sa­tions, there are lots of im­por­tant com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills that can help, such as paus­ing to keep neg­a­tive feel­ings in check, lis­ten­ing care­fully to other per­son, pos­i­tively com­mu­ni­cat­ing your own ideas and seek­ing mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial solutions. I will send you on a copy of my book

Par­ent­ing when Sep­a­rated which ex­plores these skills in de­tail.

Take time to lis­ten to your son

It is also im­por­tant that you take time to lis­ten to and un­der­stand what is go­ing on for your son. He could well be stressed in the house with his mother. Per­haps he is strug­gling with school and home­work and can’t talk to his mother about this. It could well be that his re­la­tion­ship his mum is un­der strain and it is im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge this.

When lis­ten­ing to him, be care­ful not to join in with his crit­i­cism of his mother. When he says she is “men­tal”, sim­ply ac­knowl­edge his feel­ings – “sounds like things are dif­fi­cult for you at the mo­ment” – and en­cour­age him to tell you more. Make sure to en­cour­age him to em­pathise with his mother – “sounds like your mum might be wor­ried about you, what do you think is on her mind?”

As­sert im­por­tant rules with your son

It is also im­por­tant that you as­sert the im­por­tant rules around re­spect with your son – “Look, I know you are up­set, but you must speak po­litely to your mum.” In ad­di­tion, it is im­por­tant that you sup­port his mother’s con­cern for him to do his home­work. Whereas giv­ing out to him or pun­ish­ing may not the best ap­proach to re­solv­ing this, it is im­por­tant you take time to talk through the is­sues with your son and come up with a plan. For ex­am­ple, you could get more in­volved in your son’s school progress (eg con­tact­ing the school, en­sur­ing your son does some of his home­work when he is with you, etc).

Ar­range a fam­ily meet­ing

A way for­ward could be for you, your son and his mother to sit down to­gether to talk through the prob­lems and to make a plan. This al­lows your son to see the two of you work­ing to­gether for his ben­e­fit and this com­mu­ni­cates that you are both there for him. Even if such a three-way meet­ing is not pos­si­ble, it is im­por­tant to give your son the mes­sage that you are com­mu­ni­cat­ing with his mother and try­ing to work to­gether.

Dr John Sharry is a so­cial worker and psy­cho ther­a­pist and co-de­vel­oper of the Par­ents Plus Pro­grammes. He will de­liv­er­ing a num­ber of par­ent­ing work­shops this au­tumn in­clud­ing Par­ent­ing Young Chil­dren, on Oc­to­ber 20th, and Par­ent­ing Teenagers, on the Oc­to­ber 21st (both in Dublin), as well as Help­ing Anx­ious Chil­dren, on Novem­ber 18th, in Cork. so­lu­tiontalk.ie

Don’t im­me­di­ately jump in and take sides, but in­stead spend time try­ing to un­der­stand both their per­spec­tives

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