No Boundaries for My Son at His Dad's House!

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Dear AdviceMama,

How do you set boundaries for high school teens (partying, late curfews) when one parent sets limits and the other parent doesn't? My son moved in with his father because he can keep doing what he wants and can get away with it. I can't set consequences because my son knows he doesn't have to follow since his dad doesn't enforce any consequences I try to set.

Feeling Helpless

Dear Helpless,

Your situation is shared by many parents who feel powerless to set limits with their children or teens because the other parent undermines their authority. I wish there was an easy answer, but there isn't. (I assume the custody arrangement is not something you can change.) There are, however, things you can do to help your son make better choices, even if his father isn't on the same page.

As tempting as it may be to try to use the time you have with your son to get more information about how he's spending his weekends, if he suspects you're trying to get evidence that he's "being naughty," he's likely to give you one word answers that probably don't reflect the truth: "I'm fine. School's fine. I'm not drinking." More important, if he feels interrogated every time you're together, he's going to stop answering his phone when you call to check in with him.

I suggest you take a big-picture view of the situation. Even though it's frustrating and worrisome to know your son is unsupervised under his father's roof, what matters most is being someone he can turn to when he needs guidance. Kids without a reliable parental North Star are more influenced by their peers, influencing them to make poor decisions.

I think of relationships as bank accounts. When you have a lot of money in the bank you can make withdrawals freely. But when the bank balance is on zero, or below, you're going to get into trouble if you start writing checks. Put money into the bank with your son by having conversations that focus on the good stuff. Acknowledge him for whatever efforts he's making toward improving his grades, keeping his car clean, or staying in touch with Grandma. Ask him about his dreams, and how he would describe his ideal adult life, and then listen without lecturing him on what he should or shouldn't do to create that life.

I know some may tell you to force your son's dad to be a better father; experience has probably taught you that this is easier said than done. Others may suggest that you control your son's behavior with threats. Generally, most kids who are intimidated by a noncustodial parent simply cut off contact with them. Forge a relationship with your son that encourages him to feel safe to tell you about the struggles and challenges in his life without fearing your reaction. By showing him that he doesn't have to lie to avoid your threats and lectures, you can help motivate him to take an honest look at the questionable choices he's making, and support him in navigating towards the life he wants and deserves.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.