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Ask the Experts

My middle-schooler and I argue all the time

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

How do I deal with my son? He tries to argue with me all the time. I don't think we'll ever have a good relationship, and this deeply saddens me. I don't think he'll ever forgive me for divorcing his dad. He spends all his time on the computer and playing paintball. I can't relate to him. Issues he'll discuss with his sister or uncle he'll argue about with me. Everything is all about him. I could finally afford a house, so we moved close to his friends. I deliberately chose a house in the neighborhood so he could be close to his buddies and not have to change schools, etc. But he would rather stay in the old house. How can I mend the relationship?

Answer:

Much has been written about the effects of divorce on children: Research shows that it can have both short-term and long-term effects, depending on the nature and degree of the parents’ conflict prior to the divorce and their cooperation and communication afterward. Unfortunately, children in your son’s age group tend to have the most difficult time following divorce, and among the most common emotional reactions are embarrassment and anger. In their minds, divorce breaks all the rules about how parents are supposed to act. Feeling helpless to change the situation, middle-school-aged children often react by lashing out at those who are closest to them — parents and even friends. The fact that your son is behaving in a combative manner toward you and avoiding his buddies fits right in with this explanation.

Your statement that you believe your son will never forgive you suggests that you feel guilty, which is a common and understandable reaction among divorced parents. Keep in mind, however, that guilt is a very dangerous emotion. Too often guilty divorced parents compensate by buying their children extravagant gifts, ignoring disrespectful or other  bad behavior, and even putting up with verbal and physical abuse. The worst thing you can do for your son is to relax your standards for acceptable behavior. So apply some consequences the next time he raises his voice or argues with you. Consider taking away his computer or his paintball privileges, for example.

The fact that your son can communicate well with his sister and his uncle is a good thing, though I understand that you feel left out and hurt. However, I’d be more worried if he was not talking to anyone. At this age it is fairly normal for youngsters to turn away from their parents for advice or support, so consider it helpful that these family members are available.

It would benefit you both to schedule a few sessions with a qualified mental health professional, such as a psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker or a licensed professional counselor. Sessions together and separately would provide the opportunity for you and your son to air your feelings and process the events that have taken place. If you need assistance finding a qualified mental health professional, contact your son’s pediatrician or your physician and ask for a referral.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/24/2009:
"I'm not divorced and my 14 year old son argues over EVERYTHING with me. If I ask him to do the dishes it has to be an agrement. If my husband tells him do the dishes he does it. He is a good kid and got straight A's on his last report card but I hate arguing too!"
07/21/2009:
"Hi, I am 32years old and was in your sons situation. It was very hard to accept the situation and I blammed my mom for everything even though I now know it was not what she wanted for us. Just keep tring and don't give up, but don't smother him or he will push away more. The more he knows your there for him he will eventually come around, but don't expect overnight results it takes time. I love my father and always will...."
07/21/2009:
"Dr. Bunning is telling you the best advice I have read recently. Standing your ground with love is the best thing you can do. I have been a reading specialist or special education teacher for 15 years. It is vital that we set standards and follow through. My son is going to be a sixth grader and we struggle with the same issues even though there is not a divorce. Sons need to know that there are limits from everyone in their lives. They believe they can run over their mother but need to understand that respect is a requirement. My new book 'Fallacy or Truth:The State of American Education' has some tips for dealing with behavior. It seems many students this age become very disrespectful and even threatening."
07/21/2009:
"Wow, I can truly understand this ladies situation! I divorced 6 1/2 years ago when my oldest son was 7 his dad left for another women and now he is 14 and last year began the same attitudes. He decided that with the help of his dad to go and move in with him and his wife. Since he did this our relationship has gotten worse and he has lost tounch with alot of his old friends he has grown up with since pre-k. He finds them immature and doesn't relate. His father is an alcholic and treats women with disrespect. The courts are leaning towards letting the child decide no matter how the enviorment at his dads house isn't a good one. After thousand of dollars in court/attorney fees and going to numerous counseling apts. I have come to the decision to let him go to live in another state with his father & step mom. It is a tough decison but our relationship was that like this ladies, not good. Since I stop being so concern about me loosing him and just started to listen to the reasons why he wanted to go, I have heard what he is saying and this time I am hearing his crys. I believe, this will be a tough lesson and I have to just pray and trust what he has learned with me will not be forgotten. Tell this lady to hang in there. It isnt just divorce kids that treat their moms this way it's a boy turning into a young man that needs their father figure really bad and resents not having that and unfortantly it's mom that gets the blunt of things. Just remember when your watching the super bowl it it's the mom's they always say hi to! They don't forget your love and caring nature, just remember not to become a witch in the meantime, be strong, firm and hold your ground and NEVER STOP TELLING THEM YOU LOVE THEM! Best wishes. From another divorce mom with 2 young boys."
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