family drama
November 1, 2012 7:00 PM   Subscribe

My semi-troubled sibling finally pulled the "I want to live with dad!" card. What should my mom do? How can I support her?

Background: my father abruptly left my family many years ago. I've had no contact with him since; my brother has visited him during the summers. I'm older and living away from home already.

Brother and Mom have had a constant back-and-forth battle since middle school over grades. My brother just doesn't care about school: it's not that he can't focus, it's not that he doesn't understand the work, he just doesn't care. He either doesn't do or doesn't turn in his homework. He's had to go to summer school multiple times. He lies about having done homework or projects or what his current grade is. He lies, even knowing that his report card is going to come and bust him. My mom isn't asking for straight A's - she just wants him to not fail. He has just barely managed to scrape not having to repeat a grade. She's yelled, punished, talked seriously about "what are you going to do after high school?" Nothing gets through.

He's also doing some community service right now because of some nonviolent but still Definitely Uncool and Illegal behavior. This is the first time he's been in trouble of that sort. He'll graduate high school soon (if he scrapes by) and then what? As far as we know, he hasn't been involved with drinking or drugs. He won't even look for an after-school job. He hasn't taken driver's ed because Mom told him he has to either get better grades or look for a job before she'll pay for it.

They've also had fights over other typical teenager stuff, but it's mostly the schoolwork and the lying that is a constant, frustrating battle. My mom is a single parent and simply doesn't have the time or energy to know every single thing that's due for a high schooler, for pete's sake. She loves him, and I know he loves her, it's just a terrible cycle.

So finally, my brother has come out with "I want to go live with my dad"; he wants to "try something different", though I suspect it's more "Dad won't nag me and get in fights with me so much". My mom is so sick of fighting and trying to get him to take some responsibility for his life or future, that she's about ready to just let him do it. And of course, she's angry and sad that she's put in a decade of doing 99% of the parenting alone and this is what she gets. She has tried so hard for YEARS to get him to think about how his decisions are going to impact his ability to get a post-high school education or a job or anything, and it just doesn't stick. She has told him he's definitely not living rent-free with Mom; doesn't stick. My mom has some health problems and it would be very difficult to afford family therapy, if her insurance even covered it at all.

Frankly, I think my dad is Not Interested in being a full-time parent, and my brother might actually get a bit of a surprise when dad has some excuse about why he shouldn't live with him. (FWIW, outside of their summer visits, dad rarely talks with brother and is generally unaware of what goes on in his life 11 months of the year).

I feel terrible for my mom. She wants to know if she should just let him go, the status quo clearly hasn't worked so far. I don't know what to tell her: part of me thinks it'd almost work out better for her if she let him go, so he won't see her as the villain. I don't think my father is a completely neglectful parent, but I highly doubt he will put in the effort my mom has to try to get my brother to shape up.

Because of our age difference, I've never bugged him too much about it because I think I already sometimes have kind of a "second mom" dynamic with him and I don't want to be another adult who gets on him.

I'm turning to MF in the hopes that other people have dealt with this family situation and have advice based on how it turned out...
1) What should I advise her to do when she asks? Just let him go and learn from his mistakes? Or keep trying to keep him at home?

2) What is the best way to take care of her from afar while she deals with this? I am often not the greatest at keeping in touch or being emotionally supportive, but I want to be.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total)
I think letting him ask his father to go live with him is actually a great idea. If she denies it, it's just going to create more drama between them. If she allows it, he'll probably be surprised and re-evaluate their relationship a bit.

As far as the living with the non-full time parent thing goes, I only have anecdata. A good friend let her kid go live with his dad last summer. He was back in 2 weeks because he hated it so much and the dad hated it as well. He and his mom are closer because of it, because he knows that she respects him enough to listen to his needs.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:09 PM on November 1, 2012 [18 favorites]

I think letting him live with his dad might be the best thing. It sounds to me like the dynamic between your Mom and your brother isn't going to improve anytime soon, and living with someone who doesn't care as much might give your brother the space he needs to either get his act together, or to screw up a lot and then get his act together.

Another reason for doing it is that it's a proactive choice on your brother's part to change his life; supporting that change as a good one might be really good for him. He may be the kind of person who needs to get out on his own (or semi-on-his-own) before he gets his act together. Supporting this choice might enable him to do that more quickly.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:13 PM on November 1, 2012 [15 favorites]

He's turning into an adult; he wants to do his own thing. He may indeed be in for a rude awakening when he tries to live with his dad, but he also might be warmly accepted into his life -- it is difficult to tell.

The best thing to do here is to realize that his emotional well-being and his physical safety are the two most important things here. He's chafing, he wants to be free, he thinks his dad will provide that freedom. Your mom may have to simply tell him that she loves him, that she would rather he stayed, and that he can come back if things with his dad don't work out -- and that no matter how much they fight when he's with her, they're only fighting because she wants good things for him, just like he does, but they're at odds as to how to get those good things for him.

If he goes, and his dad says yes, perhaps it well be better for him, and perhaps not. If he goes, and his dad says no, it may make things worse. Ultimately, she can't protect him from trying, not without continuing to struggle against the fake problem (the attempts to stop him from getting hurt.) Better to just let him be happy, or to find out the real problem (that his dad doesn't want to be his dad full time) and start dealing with that.

Mind you, I'm speaking as someone who had similar problems, and leaving the house (living on my own in this case, because it was my dad that I couldn't live with; they weren't divorced.) was actually the best thing I could have done for me. Your mileage may vary, of course. I certainly had a better relationship with my dad once I moved out.
posted by davejay at 7:14 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think what really needs to happen is a renegotiation of the roles between mother and son. I'm not a parent, but what I can say is that each child is different, requires different types of attention, and learns from parents differently.

It's probably best if he moves in with your dad (if your dad is okay with this) just so your brother can step away from the current dynamics. He'll definitely get a wake up call because it seems like your mother and father have completely different parenting styles and while he might enjoy your dad's parenting style for a couple of months or longer, he'll probably end up missing living with your mother.

As for taking care of your mom, add "call mom" to do your to-do list just to check in on her once or twice a week and genuinely ask her how she's doing.
posted by rylan at 7:19 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

The transition from teen to adult can be really, really hard. I think them having a break from each other will help them since neither are happy with the current dynamic. Also, this:

She has told him he's definitely not living rent-free with Mom; doesn't stick.

She will have a lot more leverage negotiating the terms of him living with her as a post-school adult with her if he and his stuff isn't already living rent-free.
posted by saucysault at 7:23 PM on November 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

It sounds like it might not be terrible for your mom and brother to have a break from each other. Your dad doesn't sound like parent of the year, but do you have reason to believe your brother would be in danger or mistreated if he stayed with his dad?

Also, you mention that family therapy is out of reach, financially, for your mom. Depending on where she lives, there may be low-cost or free family counseling available. Try searching for resources for at-risk and runaway youth--organizations that serve at-risk youth typically aim to help youth and their families live together peacefully, and so may offer individual or family counseling to support them. Keep in mind that "at-risk" is a broad category, and your family may be eligible for services you might not think. There may also be a support group for parents of teens that could be helpful for your mom.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:00 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

She's yelled, punished, talked seriously about "what are you going to do after high school?" Nothing gets through.

This so rarely works. She should try rewards rather than punishments. You ignore the bad behavior and praise/reward the good behavior.

This situation should be handled similarly. He can go live with his dad if he wants, and if it doesn't work out, praise things he does well and ignore the things he does poorly/outright bad.

There's lots of research out there to support this.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:33 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't at all think this is your Mom's fault. But she's now caught in a cycle of always being, from your brother's point of view, the bad guy: always being the one that stands in your brother's way. If she stands in his way on this, it'll just create another focus for conflict. Unless she has some reason to be actually fearful for his safety if he goes, I suggest she let him go. It may give him happiness, or it may teach him some perspective, but at least it'll let the conflict spin down some. It'll give brother some breathing room, and a chance not to have to deal with her as nag or a disciplinarian. I'd just urge her to tell him he's welcome back and not to feel like he has to stay either because she doesn't want him back or because he has to prove anything.

As to what you can do for her: just tell her, frequently, that you love her and that this situation doesn't mean she's done anything wrong or been a bad parent.
posted by tyllwin at 9:03 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your brother clearly knows that he is not thriving where he is now, and would like to try something different. That is healthy! What's the downside of letting him try something new? Maybe he needs to be in a different environment in order to feel like taking responsibility is something he has to do for himself, instead of something forced upon him. Or maybe going to his dad's will teach him that he really needs the boundaries imposed by Mom, and he will come home with a better attitude. In either case, it's not something that he can just be told, it's something that he needs to experience for himself. Part of growing up is making your own decisions, and then correcting them if they turn out to be poor ones. Preventing him from doing so is in no one's interests.

In terms of helping your mom, just remind her that allowing children to grow up and make their own decisions is a crucial part of parenting, and that life is long and difficult teenage years will eventually be over, and your brother will be happy to have had a mother who lets him spreads his wings while still providing a safe haven for him to return to should things go wrong.
posted by unsub at 9:49 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

She has told him he's definitely not living rent-free with Mom; doesn't stick

Consider that it has in fact gotten through. Living with his dad probably isn't the way your mom wants him to react, but if his dad is willing to let him live rent-free he really has no incentive to do anything else. You say dad is uninvolved, but do you think he'd be willing to hear your mom out on what she thinks is best for your brother? If only for consistency's sake? Maybe she could talk to him and convince him to also enforce a "pay rent or go to school" rule. Even if he's not interested in being a parent, that's not necessarily a very hard rule to enforce.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 1:36 AM on November 2, 2012

The only difficulty I can think of would be that community service your brother is doing "right now" --- would Brother be able to complete it while living at Father's house? Or if Father lives farther away, can Brother complete it BEFORE he heads there? (I would NOT recommend Brother just blow it off unfinished: courts take a dim view of that.)

Otherwise, yes indeed, let Brother go live with Father. I suspect Brother is about to get a bit of a reality check, though: there's no guarentee that Father won't have stricter house rules for a permanent resident than he's had for a summer visitor. Plus, of course, nobody's asked him yet, and Father might even refuse to have Brother move in in the first place.

And just as a bonus, as others say above, this move to your father's house will ensure Brother doesn't end up living longterm rent-free at your mother's house.
posted by easily confused at 4:19 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I say let him go.

I taught kids his age and there are two frustrating things.

1. Teenagers brains are not able to put cause/effect/future together. They do not see how shit they do today will translate into problems down the road.

2. They are big enough to really be exhausting.

There are issues. If he's a minor, a new custody agreement may need to be drawn up, and your mom may have to pay your dad child support.

Is moving with dad going to mean a new school? A new community service agreement, a new jurisdiction?

What does Dad think?

Your mom needs to get over the whole, "I did all of this for him and look how he's treating me." Parenting is a thankless job.

Besides, it's a blessing in disguise. When he graduates from high school, doesn't have a driver's license and is hanging around the house playing X-box and not working, it's your dad's problem, not your mom's.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:29 AM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

If he goes to live with your dad, would he be in a different school? It sounds like school performance is the biggest problem here; maybe a new school environment could actually help a bit.
posted by that's how you get ants at 6:23 AM on November 2, 2012

Anon I am a single mom whose firstborn is struggling mightily with the transition from adolescence to adulthood. What your mom is doing is completely understandable but it won't work. Your brother is not motivated by *after* high school, in fact if he is anything like my son he is terrified of it. Focus on getting him through high school, because right now it sounds like that is at risk. By focusing on working, supporting himself, what are you going to do with your life your mother is risking him not having a high school diploma! He can work after he graduates. He is going to be working the rest of his life. Let him just focus on this now. It's just a few months. He doesn't need an after-school job, he doesn't need driver's ed. He needs his mother to listen to him.

I promise I know exactly where your mother is. My son is only 2.5 credits away from graduating, and each day I worry he is going to give up. He knows that not finishing will make his life exponentially more difficult, but he also just doesn't get it. I am angry and exhausted, but the fact is he's just not ready yet. He needs another year, that's all there is to it.

I think it would be a mistake for your brother to go to your father's at this time and under these circumstances. (But listening to him is important, she shouldn't forbid it ... he may be bluffing or lashing out.) Starting again at a new school would set him back, and that high school diploma is too important. If your mother can stop talking about work and post-high-school responsibilities and listen to your brother where he is right now, and hear his concerns (which are just as valid as hers) then when/if he goes to live with his father it will be because there's something there for him, rather than to get away from something at home.

Feel free to memail me if you want. It's very hard and I know your mother is struggling but she's got to keep her eyes on the prize: your brother as a self-sufficient, reasonably happy adult who doesn't hate going to work every day for the rest of his life.
posted by headnsouth at 6:44 AM on November 2, 2012

And of course, she's angry and sad that she's put in a decade of doing 99% of the parenting alone and this is what she gets.

I think the most important thing is for your mom not to assume that this is intended as a slap in the face or a personal "fuck you."

There are lots of reasons a kid his age might want to move. Yes, it could be "Mom nags too much; maybe Dad will give me more independence." (Though even then, "I want to be independent" doesn't actually mean "Fuck you I hate your guts." Everyone wants independence at that age, no matter how much they love and appreciate their parents.) It could also be "I'm bored and I want an adventure" or "Everyone here thinks I'm some kind of delinquent and I want to start over with a clean slate" or whatever.

The question to ask is not "Why is he doing this awful hurtful thing to my mother?" but rather "Okay, here's a thing he wants to do; it isn't necessarily about Mom at all; but does it make practical sense?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:56 AM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have a much younger brother who I was almost a second mother to. When I was younger, I used to try telling him what I thought he should do and I did nag him a lot. It really only drove us further apart. In my situation things with him deteriorated with his behavior and we really aren't very close today, however I stopped nagging a long time ago and just learned to focus on myself and the more positive relationships in my life. The best thing I have done for my parents is take care of me so that there is one child that they do not have to stay up at night worrying about. As far as what to do if your mother asks your advice, I think you should let her know you support her decision, whichever it is.
I am not great about keeping in touch with some of my relatives, either, but when they go through something, I try to call more and also listen more and ask what they need. A lot of times people will tell you. You sound like a really great son and brother.
posted by heatherly at 11:44 AM on November 2, 2012

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