Isn't it a drag when our children make the shift from being our
biggest fans to acting like we're public enemy #1? I can really
relate to the reader who wrote about feeling puzzled by this common
hallmark of the early tween years, when cracking the code of kids'
behaviors can become especially challenging:
"My son and I have always been close. He was a 'mama's boy' who loved spending time with me, wanted to sit by me, believed everything I said and even held my hand in public. Suddenly, he pulled away. It's now 'uncool' to snuggle and hold hands, I get a rolling of the eyes when I voice my opinions and now Dad is the cool one. When I discipline him, he says, 'Dad would let me do that,' or he issues a sarcastic remark. I know this is part of growing up, but I can't help but feel sad and rejected."
It can be difficult when our sidekicks spread their wings, even though it signifies a healthy effort to know their own minds, forge their own alliances and make their own way. Differentiating or pulling away from you is perfectly typical at this age, but understanding that it's typical doesn't make the disrespectful behavior OK.
Now that he's older, perhaps he's less comfortable with the snuggly connection you once shared, or maybe he just feels angry about something. Have you asked? Another possibility, ironically, is that your son may be (unconsciously) testing the limits of your connection. You can use this as a teachable moment.
When I feel angry or hurt during encounters with my kids, it's tough to always recognize them as opportunities. It's easier to withdraw and lick my wounds or simply give in and indulge them in an effort to maintain peace. The trouble with these "passive parenting" approaches, however, is that they do nothing to help our children learn to become good friends to others-let alone empathetic and responsible partners in work and in life.
The bottom line? Under no circumstances does a difference of opinion make it OK for people to be rude or disrespectful to one another. Let your son know what you expect and then notice and affirm those times when he does respectfully disagree-and make sure you toe the line, too. Kids learn so much more about how to be in the world by observing us than by listening to our boring lectures.
For me, the key to mastering these moments is to maintain the perspective that parenting is a real job. How would I deal with difficult personalities in a workplace? While I don't relish conflicts in my family, I am learning to expect them and to recognize them for what they are: opportunities to parent. That way, I'm not always shocked, injured and reactionary, unwittingly reinforcing the very drama I claim to abhor.
As for rapport between your son and his dad, I encourage you to affirm this. Children of both genders typically ebb and flow in their zeal to connect with each parent, and it's quite typical for boys entering adolescence to want to model after the men in their lives. This is a healthy shift, but beware of "splitting," a dynamic where one parent is pitted against the other in a child's unconscious quest to identify with one parent. It's helpful if parents can decide to have a united front and problem-solve as a team.
No matter its origins, this pulling away you're noticing may wax and wane. Try to notice and express curiosity about the new things your son finds important, which can inspire moments reminiscent of that earlier warmth. So when your boy drops into your lap without a warning, drop what you're doing and savor it.
Recently, my son Noah hesitated when I asked if he wanted me to chaperone a school field trip, as I often do. A middle-schooler now, he winced and shrugged, making it pretty clear he wanted me to sit this one out. I felt a little sting of rejection.
These are bittersweet moments. We can acknowledge the losses these changes mean for us, but also affirm our kids' new alliances and take pride in their budding independence. Ironically, it's because they feel secure in their connections with us that they're able to confidently leave the nest. Teaching our offspring to spread their wings respectfully will enable them to enjoy healthy connections with others later-my singular hope for them in life-when they fly the coop for good.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.