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"Why is my Teen So Rebellious?"

QUESTION: My husband had a job transfer that took him out of state. I have a great job and made the decision not to move at this time. I am now alone and trying to raise my 16-year-old son. (We also have an 18-year-old son, who just went away to college.) My younger son will not listen and is very rude to me. He thinks that he can go anywhere and do anything he wants. We were always a close family. I get depressed because I miss my older son and my husband. Why is my 16-year-old so rebellious? How can I deal with this difficult situation?

ANSWER: You are in the midst of two concurrent life transitions, both of which are major. No wonder you are feeling depressed. It is natural for you to grieve your 18-year-old son who has left for college. He was your first child and his departure marks a full cycle of motherhood. This transition alone would cause significant upheaval in your household, but you have not only lost your eldest son, but your husband's presence in the home. You must feel very alone, but you must remember that you still have one child in the nest who very much needs you right now!

Your 16-year-old son has experienced a loss of his only brother from the home. At the same time he has lost his father's daily presence. He is a boy left alone with a grieving mother. Perhaps it is he who is truly the loneliest of all! Anger often masks sadness. It is possible that his rudeness and rebellion are his answers to feelings of abandonment, or perhaps unconscious pressure to be "the man of the house" now that both of the older males are absent.

Do not give up on him! Instead, talk first with your husband about your own feelings of abandonment. You are launching your first child without the loving presence of his father for easing the pain. You and your husband have shared raising him together, but you are apart for this major transition on the family's life cycle. Depression and a strange sense of emptiness are common for parents at this time. Share as much of this experience with your partner as possible. Write letters, e-mail and check in with each other daily. You are very vulnerable right now, and your husband is the main person you need support from in processing feelings about the half-empty nest. His support will give you greater reserve to deal more effectively with your younger son.

Stay in touch with your older son at college. Check in with him so that you remember he is gone from the home, but he is not lost to you forever. And begin spending time with your younger son doing some things together that can be enjoyable. Go out to dinner at his favorite place. Catch a movie with him, if possible. And ask your husband to make a concerted effort to connect with him and let your youngest know he has not been forgotten! Work out a plan with his father to parent from a distance, relating often with your younger son about his life at school, at home and his future plans. Remember that he is at an age where he needs your support in establishing future options for college himself. Do not forget his needs in your sorrow.

And finally, talk with your son about what is going on for you. Reconnect with him, as this time presents an opportunity for the two of you to grow closer, not further apart. Express your feelings about the tremendous change in your family life, the loneliness and the feeling of being lost at sea. But let him know you are happy he is there! And that you want to be available to him at this very important period in his life, as does his Dad. Ask him about his day, his school work, social activities and establish a schedule together that reflects the fact that the two of you are holding down the fort together. Have him cook once a week, shop for groceries or other necessary household activities that are reflected in an allowance of some kind, or, for example, in exchange for use of the car, if he drives.

Your household for the moment, consists of the two of you. A major shift in roles and responsibilities is in order. Your husband is still your partner, though he is not in the home right now. Lean on him for strategies, planning and reinforcing rules the two of you establish with your son. But remember that although you are experiencing major life transitions, your son is, too. These teenage years are a growth period for him, and the thrust is towards independence, yet due to your family situation the needs are just the opposite. Because of your husband's absence, you need to depend on him more. This in itself can cause your son stress, in addition to the simultaneous losses of his brother and father in the immediate situation. Without his Dad present to steer through the family changes, he may feel even more than you do...like a ship without a rudder. Though you need not accept rude behavior from him, it may help to realize that his rudeness may express his anger at both you and his father for what he experiences as sudden abandonment.

You have gone from being a family of four, with two parents, to a single parent and child family structure all in one fell swoop. No wonder you are distressed! Due to the enormity of changes you are experiencing in the family it may prove useful to enlist the help of a competent family counselor who can help facilitate talking about these changes and focus the two of you on rebuilding a structure that works in your family's present transitional state. The two of you must establish successful ways of functioning together. And it is critical that your son's needs for guidance not be ignored, as he will soon follow his brother's launching.

Though it may feel as though the family exploded on your youngest prematurely, he will soon realize that he is not abandoned. Reconnecting with your son will open opportunities for mastering this new situation, rather than becoming overwhelmed by it.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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