Ask Mom is a weekly feature in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. If you have a question you would like to submit to the Ask Mom panel, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. This week's column was written by Patrice Janda, MSW therapist with Cocoon Project SAFE. Cocoon Project SAFE serves Walla Walla parents of teens. For free consultation and support, call 1-877-399-4179.
My 15-year-old son won't talk to us anymore, so my husband and I haven't a clue what is going on in his head. He's always been a good boy, not a star student -- he has struggled some in reading and math -- but with help from his dad and me he's always managed to pass. He was motivated because he wanted to be a professional basketball player and knew he needed to keep his grades up. But things seemed to change overnight when he entered high school. First he grew out is hair, which is lovely, but it now covers half his face. It's hard to explain, but not seeing my son's eyes on a daily basis made me feel really sad. But I talked to friends and they assured me that's just what happens, they can't stay charming little boys forever. About the time I was adjusting to his hair curtain, we started getting messages from school that he had been cutting classes. When we confronted him about it he, he didn't take it well -- granted he was playing a video game at the time and was distracted. We would have waited until his game was over to ask him about not attending school, but we wanted to talk to him before midnight as my husband and I both work and need our rest. Anyway, when we asked him why he was cutting class he informed us both that school was boring and pointless, he hated being there, and most importantly, we should be grateful he's attending, as most of his new friends from the skate park don't attend at all. One part of me was relieved he was actually talking to us, but another part was terrified by what I was hearing. The thing he said that really hurt was that he thinks no matter what he does he can never make us happy. If it was true, that would be one thing, but it's really never been the case. If hearing that my son thinks I'm against him was like a knife through my heart, what my husband heard was worse. Without looking up from his video control pad, our son said he's not going to play basketball anymore either. My husband lives for basketball, loves it like it is life itself. Imagining what life with him was going to be like knowing our naturally athletic son was going to deprive him of the joy of going to all those games, well, it was unimaginable. Needless to say, things haven't been pretty around our house. My husband and son are arguing continually. Now, as I lay in bed at night, questions rocket through my mind. Should I search my son's room for drugs? Should I let him get his lip piecing? Should I take away his computer until his grades go up? Is it wrong to reward him with a skateboard for merely attending his classes? I don't know what is normal anymore.
-- Losing both son and sleep
It is good of you to write and seek outside help at this time. Even though some of what your son is doing is within the range of "normal" teen behavior, all of it put together make me think something is up with your boy. If your son wanted a piercing but was still attending his classes, I wouldn't be concerned. If he wanted to hang out at the skate park but came home in time for dinner that would probably be OK too. And giving up basketball when he's the star of the team? What is significant and requires attention is that your son is exhibiting changes in behavior across the board. By this I mean -- he has new friends, he has lost interest in activities from which he derived significant enjoyment, he's exhibiting a change in sleep pattern (staying up late), he's no longer committed to school, he apparently spends many long hours playing video games, and lastly he's changed his appearance. Something isn't working for your son, it's time to seek out professional help to assist him in figuring out what's getting in his way.
An important factor in helping our children is in learning to distinguish between what is our problem and what is theirs.
This is much easier said than done and requires much patience and practice.
In the case of you and your son, I would take care to note that your son's problem (as yet unknown) is in danger of getting mixed up with your problem (as yet unknown). This is how I can tell: when your son is struggling he identifies his problem in terms like, "I can never please you and dad."
If you were to see your son's expression of the problem as the truth, and try and solve the identified problem by merely being more accepting and possibly lowering your standards for your son, your accommodation, rather than fixing the problem might actually obscure it.
Kids often interpret their own feelings of disappointment, guilt and shame as coming from those who love them. In a nutshell, they project their own feelings about themselves onto us. Our job as parents is to learn not to take those projections personally, but to use them as clues on how best to help our children.
It's our job to see what's behind the hair curtain.