Dear Keen Readers:
My son Brad was always a good reader and a good kid, but when he turned 12 this year, he basically stopped reading and stopped getting his homework into class on time. He says school is boring and not worth the time. He sits in front of the television or computer like a robot for hours, and he refuses to get library books anymore. He has also started getting lippy with me and his teachers. I know my recent separation from my husband (his dad) may have made this worse (Brad lives with me except on weekends), but it seems like my friends’ kids whose parents aren’t separated are going through the same thing. Anyway, my ex is just as worried as me, and we’re trying to work together on this. Meanwhile, Brad’s grades are sinking and nothing I do, from grounding him to lecturing him about the importance of good grades, is working. Help!
—Mother of a 12-year-old
Dear Mother of a 12-year-old,
First of all, it’s great that you and your husband are working together to help your son. Not all separated couples are able to put their children first. Good for you. The recent separation does raise the issue of how your son is weathering this significant change in his life. Tweens often respond to divorce with anger and disengagement. Anger can provide a sense of control over an uncertain world, and refusal to participate in activities he knows you value can be another way to express his unhappiness. It also may be a way for him to determine if you and his dad are really working together to take care of him. Have you had the opportunity to discuss the separation with him and reassure him that he wasn’t responsible for your decision to separate? If not, that would be a good first step. Depending on your relationship with your husband, the two of you may want to do this together. Provide lots of ongoing opportunities for him to talk about his feelings and provide constant reassurance that you and his dad love him and will be there for him. You might also try explaining how your “lecturing” is actually an expression of love and concern, not anger or disappointment.
A second issue to consider is how moving between two households is affecting him. Does he maintain the same schedule in both places? Change is difficult for tweens. So many biological changes are happening at age 12. For one thing, the brain is re-wiring. Research increasingly points to differences in the “teen brain,” most notably that young people have more intense emotional reactions. Maintaining stable sleeping, eating and social patterns is more important than ever. Try to provide a stable, predictable routine that is consistent across households.
Have you been able to talk with his teachers about the change in his behaviour? If not, it’s a good idea to work with the school, if only to inform them of your concern about your son and the recent separation. In my experience, teachers are quite sympathetic and understanding when their students go through life changes and will cut them some slack in terms of assignments and acting-out behaviour. They might also provide you with information about the school environment that you weren’t aware of. Is your son being bullied? Is there pressure from the other boys to adopt a dismissive attitude toward school and reading? Does he have friends or has there been a falling out? Is he having trouble with a particular course and could benefit from tutoring?
If Brad’s behaviour continues, set up an appointment with a counselor or psychologist, one who specializes in adolescents. He or she will provide guidance and a sympathetic ear for your son. Finally, take care of yourself. Coping with a separation and your son’s changed attitude is likely causing you considerable stress and self-doubt. Parenting is tough work even at the best of times. Give yourself credit.
Best of luck with this situation,
—Lynn Alden, Ph.D. R. Psych.