After spending years in a marriage where I experienced betrayal and dishonesty, how can I respond to my teenagers without fear and harsh reaction when they display similar behaviors that my former spouse had? Especially when their choices are considered normal for their age and developmental stage. I don’t want to compromise our relationship, but I can’t help fearing that they will repeat their father’s mistakes or head down the same path.
It’s hard to be reminded of damaging marital betrayals from your own children. Even though your brain knows these behaviors are developmentally normal for your sons, your body and emotions react more quickly to any perceived threats. This makes it tough to sort out your parenting strategy when you’re feeling compromised. Let’s talk about how you can best support your sons without overwhelming them with your trauma.
Perhaps you’re already doing this, but it’s important for you to make sure you’re working on your own personal healing. If you don’t take charge of your own healing, you might inadvertently put pressure on your children to protect you from unwanted triggers by caretaking you through their behavior. They need to be free to live their lives by making choices and dealing with the consequences without constantly worrying about upsetting mom. Of course, you want them to be considerate of how their behavior impacts other people, but if they’re making all of their decisions out of fear, they’ll be put in a pseudo parent/spouse role that will impact their own mental health and relationships. Your healing process might need to include personal counseling, spiritual support, education, and even group support to help you build resilience as you undo the negative impact of your ex-husband’s betrayals.
If you’ve overreacted to your sons out of fear, it’s not too late to apologize and let them know you’re going to work on healing the emotional struggles you’re having post-divorce. It’s no secret to them that you’ve been impacted by the divorce and have some fears. It will make sense to them that you have healing work to do. In fact, it might be a relief to them to hear you validate their behavior as normal (even though you will still need to redirect it). You don’t have to criticize their father, but you can release them from worrying about you and your process. Find out what they need in their healing as well, as they may be struggling with their own divorce adjustment issues.
Please remember that your ex-husband was the one who was behaving in a developmentally inappropriate way. Granted, he may have had his own arrested development that prevented him from fully showing up as an adult in your marriage. This was his responsibility to act like an adult. Your sons need permission and space to go through their own developmental process of figuring out how to work through selfishness, immaturity, impulsivity, and other normal teen behaviors. They still need accountability and guidance from you because that’s your job. On the other hand, it was never your job to manage your husband’s behavior.
You might notice that your fear drives you to over-manage their lives to prevent them from going down the same road as your husband. It’s critical you don’t hover so much that you prevent them from experiencing the developmental lessons and consequences that will help their brain make important connections. They need to develop healthy reflexes that guide them toward responsible behavior. If you’re constantly reminding them, redirecting them, intervening, and reacting to them, they’ll only be reacting to you instead of reacting to life. Life will teach your sons if you let it.
For example, if your son sleeps in and shows up late to work, you might be tempted to lecture him about how irresponsible this is and how he’ll never be able to keep a job and take care of his future family. On the other hand, what if you allowed his boss to handle the agreement between himself and your son? As our children get older, they begin making agreements with others outside the family that they’re responsible to manage. They make agreements with their teachers regarding their schoolwork. They get jobs and have agreements with their bosses. When they get their driver’s license, they make an agreement with the state that licenses them along with the insurance company. If you allow your sons to face the broken agreements along with their attendant consequences, you can better support them than anxiously lecturing them about their need to be responsible. And, of course, protecting them from the consequences of broken agreements won’t help them either.
Our kids will fare much better as adults if we allow them to make their own mistakes and face the consequences as we offer our support and guidance. The outside world is indifferent and won’t coddle your kids. It’s better for your kids to learn these lessons in the supportive environment of their home where their basic needs are still being met rather than putting everything on the line as an adult. These experiences will give your sons opportunities to decide what kind of men they want to be. It might break your heart to see them struggling, but they get to learn what agreements with others really mean.
If you overreact and begin controlling their lives through interventions, lectures, or rescuing, then circle back and let them know you made a mistake and need to handle things differently. Just because you made one mistake doesn’t mean you need to continue down that path if redirection is needed. They can learn that just because you’re allowing them to face the consequences of their decisions doesn’t mean you don’t love them. If they only equate your love with no consequences, they will have difficulty with their future relationships.
Remember that their behavior isn’t just a reflection of you as a mother. Their life choices are influenced primarily by their own agency, but also impacted by their temperaments, modeling from other adults, influence from peers, and a host of other factors that are completely out of your control. Don’t automatically assume that their behavior is modeling their father or a reflection of your parenting. They are influenced by both of you, but, more importantly, they are free to choose how they’ll respond. I’ve worked with plenty of people who came from severely dysfunctional backgrounds and made conscious choices to live healthy lives. Likewise, I’ve worked with people who came from supportive and healthy environments who chose to self-destruct. Do the best you can to create a healthy environment and stay connected to your boys as they move through the world so they have someone to help guide them.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.