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Are You "Losing Control" of Your Teen?

QUESTION: I have a toddler and a 16-year-old son. My teen is a great kid. He's an honor student, working toward being an Eagle Scout and participates in sports, but he is constantly testing me, "pushing my buttons." When I ask him to stop, he pushes until I am VERY angry and feel out of control! Even though he is bigger than me, I have lost my temper and punched him. Even though he is the one who started the fight he says it's all my fault. Maybe he is jealous of my interactions with his younger sibling. Even I feel guilty for enjoying my youngest child so much. I'm losing control, obviously. What can I do?

ANSWER: Your teen is right. Punching him is all your fault! You are guilty of losing control with him and then blaming him for your actions. No, you are not horrible, but you do need to look at your own "out of control" behavior. Stop looking for reasons he is "pushing your buttons" and discover what is difficult for you about these teenage years. Raising toddlers and raising adolescents are the two most trying stages of the family life cycle. You are doing both at once! No wonder you are feeling somewhat testy.

Your son is at an age where he is separating from you. You are allowing yourself to get into power struggles with him. Since his behavior and performance is not an issue, why do you engage in angry battle? How is he pushing your buttons? Is he becoming critical of you? Does he disagree with your views on things? It is natural for your son to express differences and in fact it is a teenager's job to criticize his parents. Your job is to learn not to take it personally!

Make boundaries around disrespectful "name calling" if it occurs, and expect him to carry out his chores as a member in the family. Create consequences (such as no car privileges, etc.) if your fights involve truly abusive language and lack of follow through on responsibilities. But stop short of requiring that he be "on the same page" with you about how he sees you or your opinions, and do not expect him to have a perpetually cooperative attitude towards you, as he may have in the past. Expect a dissension in his point of view from your own, and allow this dissension neutral space. You can disagree with him without losing your temper.

You may find that you have fallen from a previous state of grace in your togetherness, and the space he now needs in your relationship may be a difficult adjustment for you. You may be right that he likes it this way. He may be creating the distance he needs from you at this point in his development. Having another child at this time may also have created a natural change in your relationship with your teenage son. View it as a help rather than a hindrance to the "letting go" process of adolescence.

Your 16 year old is only two years away from adulthood! He is emerging as a young man in the world. He is a beginning adult. No doubt your engagement with his younger brother allows him more freedom to separate from you. Accept that he loves his brother and his "good" behavior with him is enough reassurance that this is not the issue to focus upon.

Instead of centering your attention on him, turn your focus inwards. What is hard about letting go? Reflect on your own guilt about loving another child, while he is just two years away from leaving home. The two of you have no doubt been "tight" because he was your only child for such a long period of time. This is even more true if you were a single parent with him and this new sibling is a product of a new marriage.

Consider that what is occurring between you and your eldest son is normal change. Had he had a brother much sooner in life, sharing your attention would have been a matter of history by now. It may be hard on you to accept the distance between the two of you as healthy. You may be fighting to keep the same kind of closeness you enjoyed when it was just the two of you. But his development requires that he experience separation from you (less closeness in some ways) in order to be ready to "be on his own".

Unrealistic expectations of motherhood on your part may also contribute to losing control. Let go of guilt for being appropriately close to your toddler. It is also possible that this youngster has put you on edge, too. Though toddlers are delightful, they can also be physically exhausting. Accept your own limitations. Do not push to give more than you have. You may be expecting too much of yourself as a mother!

You are a great Mom. Don't blow it now! Work to let go of maintaining your pride in your arguments with your 16 year old. Simply do not put your self-esteem on the line. Maintain and adjust to a greater emotional distance from your son in these heated discussions. Keep in mind that his successes are also a result of your good mothering all of these years, but this is not the time for him to reflect this to you! Wait until he is on his own at college to hear appreciation.

My 20-year-old son recently gave me a birthday card that read on the front "Running away seemed like such a good idea in those days". Upon opening the card it continued, "I'm so glad you never did!"

You may be surprised to later learn that your son admired your ability to take his "guff" without reacting during the tumultuous adjustment of adolescence. Act in a manner that he will be able to admire (and role model) in the future. His children will thank you for 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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