Single parenthood and self-esteem

I am a single parent with an 11 year old son in 6th grade. Ian is very bright, but also demands control. We have been having a daily head-butting for over a year now. I feel exhausted, not sure how to handle him. He becomes more and more verbally disrespectful. He says he hates me, etc. He is in weekly therapy, but I don't see any change. I don't know how to deal with him. I feel like everything I do is wrong. He has no friends in our neighborhood, is not into sports and is pretty much a loner. He is gifted in music and enjoys reading, but besides that gets enjoyment giving me or his 10 yr. old sister a hard time. There are lots of times I don't like him. I don't believe in hitting him. I'm confused by all of the conflicting advice I hear. Will this change? Is this really just a phase? If he gets mad at his father or his father lets him down, I get the brunt of it. I really feel like he doesn't love or respect me.

Any words of advice?


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Dear Sheri,

Single parenthood can be especially tough when our children are non-cooperative. But low feelings can plague us when our children become downright hostile! Be careful that you do not put your self-esteem in your son's hands. Do not make conclusions about your son's love for you at this time. Instead, develop friendships and join a single parents' support group which will give you an outlet for your feelings.

Your son's battle with you requires that you absorb his anger. It is possible that his anger serves him by separating himself from you. Is it possible that he had stepped in to fill his Dad's shoes as a younger child? It is natural for an eldest boy to feel pressure to take on a "father's" role in the family following divorce. Could your son be reacting to pressure to fill shoes that are too big for him? This could be true whether or not you intended this for him. Or is he confused about his relationship with his father in some way and unsure how to be identify himself as a male in the family?

Whatever the causes, his expressions of anger may also serve to separate from you as he prepares for adolescence. Accept his need to separate, but establish connection around his areas of interest. For example, if he is interested in music, consider taking him to a particular concert. Spend time with him apart from his sister in venues that are contained and promise a positive experience. Keep these areas of connection sacred and do not use them to restrict or punish him in any way.

Be clear about his responsibilities to the family. Establish appropriate chores which do not overwhelm him, but include him in family responsibilities. Define the family rules. For example, no "swearing" or verbal abuse may be one of the rules. Follow through as matter-of -factly as possible on consequences. Loss of one day's privileges for television viewing (or some other privilege) should be neutrally enforced if he curses you. Simply post the consequence and its duration somewhere visible that will remind you and him of its existence. Later when he has "cooled" down, let him know that you want to talk to him about his outbursts.

Maintain your authority, but let him know that you do care about him. Establish not only consequences for verbal abuse, but that he will have to talk with you later about the reasons for any unacceptable behavior. Do, however, brace yourself to accept expressions of anger that are not abusive. This is where it gets particularly hard for all parents, particularly single parents!

It is natural for you to feel temporarily like you "hate" your son back. Do your best to handle him neutrally without retaliating emotionally. To do so you will need support! Establish connections with friends, relatives, therapist and especially other single parents. Consider making appropriate contracts to be able to call one of them for support whenever you have just had a difficult interchange with your son. Ask that they simply let you vent to them first about the incident, about his actions and about all of your own very strong negative feelings towards your son at that time. Establish that at some point your friend will suggest looking ahead and visualizing him as a happy, successful man. Then, come back to the present and tell your friend what, if any, consequences or actions you will be taking about the incident.

It may feel almost impossible to absorb the anger that your son is throwing at you right now. His "cure" is to some extent dependent upon your ability to set safe limits and still accept him. Absorbing his energy will help "tame" the rage he is feeling inside. But this is easier said than done!

Your son is an intense and talented young boy. The energy he is throwing around indicates that when he learns to control his anger, he will be a capable and powerful adult. The upcoming years are not a time when you can afford to see yourself through your son's eyes. You must seek steady and strong support from others who understand and will listen to your frustrations. Expressing your frustrations will keep you from going into depression and giving up on him.

Remember the saying "It takes a village to raise a child"? You will feel like it takes a country or at least a whole state for awhile! Do not attempt to do it alone, but accept your responsibility and authority as head of household. As a single parent, it is essential that you garner support as described. Maintain your position but get reinforcement for your self-esteem.

Nurture yourself. Look to other areas of your life and other peers for your self-esteem. Let them reinforce to you what a great mother and person you are! Later, when your son has graduated high school, he may admire you for your ability to "take his guff" and still be there for him through it all. Until then, look to your friends, not your son for emotional rapport.

I recently overheard my 21 year old son talking about his relationship with me in his adolescent years. He exclaimed to a friend with incredulous respect and gratitude, "You wouldn't believe what she put up with! Really!"

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