Q. I’m a single mom and have an issue with my 14-year old son. For the past seven years, since my husband died, it’s been just the two of us. He’s independent and smart, and I try to get him involved in household decisions. For better or worse, I’ve always been pretty relaxed in my relationship with him and have made an effort to treat him like a friend and equal, rather than a child. Part of the reason is I feel guilty that I work a lot and he doesn’t have a traditional mom-dad family. In addition, I’m getting married later this year and my fiancé will move into our house. That’s going to be a huge change for my son and I know I need to change our relationship to create some boundaries, but I have no idea how or where to begin.
A. Fortunately, you already recognize you’ve created a problem and you seem committed to doing something about it. Unfortunately, you’ve dug yourself quite a hole and it’s not going to be easy to dig out.
The dynamic you share with your son is common. Many single parents feel guilty about depriving their children of two parents. Those feelings of guilt get even bigger if, like you, that single mom or dad works long hours. To make themselves feel better — and to make it up to their children — those guilt-wracked parents let the kids get away with just about anything.
In the short term, that may have been a fairly effective way of reducing guilt. But in the long term, it creates more problems than it solves. To start with, you’re creating one more thing to feel guilty about — not having been the parent you know, deep down, your son needed you to be. Second, children tend not to see their friends as authority figures. As a result, when you finally get around to laying down the law, he’ll probably see you as someone he can steamroll.
While I’m sure you’re right that your son is smart and independent, I’m also sure that he’s not able to earn a living on his own or get himself to and from school, medical appointments and everywhere else he needs to go. Having firm boundaries and being held accountable for his choices and his behavior is what will give him the self-confidence that comes from taking on responsibilities, meeting challenges, making mistakes and suffering the consequences. Without those boundaries, instead of growing into an independent, mature, capable young man, there’s a good chance he’ll become overly dependent, irresponsible and immature. Which is not what either of you wants.
By treating your son as an equal and getting him involved in household decisions, you’ve also given him the impression that he has a vote (or a veto) in your relationships. There’s a good chance he’ll cast that vote (or veto) before your new husband has a chance to unpack his bags.
You have to re-establish yourself as the authority in your house — right now. And the only way to do that is to start establishing rules and boundaries. Most of all, though, you’ll need to establish consequences — and commit to firmly enforcing them. Get on it now. The longer you wait, the harder it’ll be.