My ex is pressurising me to punish my son for not doing his homework
I think she is over-reacting and making things worse by how she deals with him
Don’t immediately jump in and take sides, but instead spend time trying to understand both their perspectives
My 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?
Agreeing 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 psychotherapist 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 21st October (both in Dublin), as well as Helping Anxious Children, on November 18th, in Cork. See solutiontalk.ie for details.