My middle-schooler and I argue all the time
By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist
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?
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.
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.