Since this letter represents a very common and challenging situation, Drs. Marie and Dan decided to put their heads together and write a joint response to share their thinking about what a teen can do.
My parents got divorced about 4 years ago. When they did, my mom and sister, who was 15 at the time, moved out to a new house and I stayed with my dad at his house. My sister left with my mom because she didn’t have a close relationship with my dad. They fought all the time and that caused my mom and dad to fight as well. I stayed at my dad’s house because my dad and I were very close.
Now my dad has a girlfriend and he is always going to her house to spend the night. This bothers me because he is constantly leaving me home alone to fend for myself. I feel like he doesn’t care about me and would rather spend his time with his girlfriend and her son, who is my age. Sometimes he doesn’t even call to see how I am. This has all caused tension between me and my dad. Lately we have been fighting a lot because I don’t like when he is gone all the time but at the same time I hate when he brings his girlfriend over to spend the night when I am home. I have told him this before and he doesn’t understand why I would care if she is here. He says that she is a nice lady and that I should be more accepting.
I just want him to come home sometimes without her here. I am still a kid and sometimes I just want a parent here to help me with some of the things I need to get done and I don’t feel like I can do that when he has his girlfriend around. On top of that, I don’t think he acts the same around her. He tends to be nicer but at the same time he tends to annoy me more when she is around by asking me too many questions or wanting me to hang out with him and his girlfriend. Now he has stopped trying and he just goes to his girlfriends all the time. Part of me likes it because I don’t have to put up with him and his girlfriend but I also feel so alone all the time.
Nobody is ever home and it has had an effect on my social life. I have gotten so used to being alone that I have stopped hanging out with friends. The only time my dad is home is on weekdays because he knows he has to bring me to school in the mornings. I feel like a burden because I am stopping him from being with his girlfriend all the time. Even on the weekdays he will stay at her house every opportunity he gets like if I get a ride to school. It annoys me because it is so obvious that he would rather be at his girlfriends with her and her son than at home taking care of me.
When he is home we just fight all the time. It’s tough because I used to be very close to him but now he just annoys me all the time. He also has an anger problem. He gets mad at the stupidest things and yells at me for the smallest things. He never yells around his girlfriend because she knows she doesn’t like it and she tries to help him not worry about small things, but whenever she isn’t around, he is mean most of the time. He never used to be mean to me because I was younger and didn’t have as much teenage angst. Now all he does is complain about something I’m doing even though I’m a good kid.
I do have a bit of an attitude but that’s usually when he is yelling at me for stupid stuff. I made good grade, I do community service work, and I play sports. I don’t get in trouble with friends because I usually never hang out with anybody, even on the weekends.
I tend to hang out with my mom a lot. We are really close and talk on the phone every night. I tell her everything because I know she won’t judge me. She is pretty much the opposite of my dad. She doesn’t get angry easily and I talk to her a lot. We barely ever fight. I have recently thought about moving in with her.
I feel like I might be happier there but there are a few problems with moving in with her. I love my dad’s house and I have everything I want here. I have a huge room that I have decorated almost perfectly. The house is always clean and everything is really pretty. I have a lot of space for my stuff and I feel comfortable here for the most part.
My mom’s house tends to be dirty a lot and my room there is really small. I have asked her if I can have my sister’s room now that she is in college and she doesn’t seem very willing. She says that she is not ready to “kick out” my sister. I see it differently though. My sister will still have a room of her own, it will just be smaller. If I will be the one home a majority of the time then I think I deserve the bigger room, not to mention my sister is very messy and not a neat freak like I am. She could probably care less what her room looked like and she is never home anyways. My mom just says that “she’s been through a lot” but I have been through the same or even worst stuff than my sister and it upsets me that my mom doesn’t think about what I have been through. Not only is moving into a less organized, smaller house hard but my mom seems to be making it harder by not giving me the bigger room to live in. I feel like my sister and my sister’s feelings will always come first in my mom’s mind.
My mom also lives with her boyfriend. He is a pretty nice guy but sometimes he can get annoying. He is kind of a slob and he is a little too care free. Sometimes he is so care free that he will not think hard enough before doing things and it ends up making things more difficult. Also, my mom and her boyfriend smoke which makes me really mad. Smoking is hard to quit and I don’t like that her boyfriend is probably making it harder for her. I really want her to stop and she doesn’t smoke in the house at all but it still bothers me a lot. I really feel like I could help my mom clean up the house but sometimes when she is uncooperative or gets stressed, she doesn’t seem to want to help me. Also, when I ask her to do something she will always say that her boyfriend can take me where I want to go. Sometimes I just want her to take me places and not her boyfriend.
She has also told me that I can’t move in until school ends in a few months because she is so busy with work that she can’t take me. That’s why I have to stay with my dad and he doesn’t even know that I am thinking about moving out. I feel like things will get easier when I can drive but there are still a few things I am not so sure about. I have been very depressed before and I never got help for it but I just found a way to get over it. I just don’t want things to get so bad that I go back to feeling as sad as I did. I really just don’t know what to do or where to live and I want to figure things out so I can stop worrying so much about things.
A: “The greatest and most important problems in life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.” -Carl Jung
You are 16 and it sounds to us like you have already had more than your share of disappointments. The decisions your parents made left you in a quandary, but your resilience is showing through by asking us your question. It is a very good thing you are asking for help on this here.
Sometimes it’s how we say something more than what we say that gets through. Your feelings are sadness, loneliness, and bewilderment that your parents are acting like they have finished parenting when you aren’t finished growing up. Your words come off as demanding, angry, and entitled.
You may be feeling sad but what you seem to be showing is criticism.
It’s true that your life does seem upside down. It’s normal for there to be tension between parents and teens between wanting to stay and wanting to go. But usually it is the teen who is pushing for more independence, who is dating people the parents don’t approve of, and who rebels against responsibilities. In your case, you’re the person left at home to worry and your parents are moving on. No wonder you’re upset with them. However – It doesn’t matter how right you are. Being right isn’t going to get you what you most need.
We are assuming that both homes allow you to go to the same school that you are in now. If you don’t know this you may want to ask. You have lost enough. Do consider staying with the parent who lives close enough for you to be in school with your friends. You most likely don’t want to separate from them.
But in any case we think you need an ally. Is there a school counselor or trusted family friend or teacher you can talk to about how hurt you are feeling? Perhaps you and that person can sit down with you and both your parents to help them understand your feelings.
If you want them to listen, you will have to apologize first for being so critical and demanding. This will set the tone for a new kind of conversation between you. Then you need to speak honestly about your feelings. Leave out all your complaints about the people your parents are dating, your wish for the bigger room, your reasons why you think you are entitled to better. Just speak honestly about how much you miss being close to them, about your fears about being so on your own, and about your need for their attention, advice, and support.
Resist the temptation to lecture them about their responsibilities. Keep your part of the conversation focused on how much you still need some parenting. Be open-minded about whatever criticisms they might have. Usually this kind of conflict does go both ways. There may be some things you could do differently to invite them to be closer. If this conversation doesn’t get you all to a better place, ask if you can continue the conversation with a family therapist. Family therapists are trained specifically to help the whole family solve problems together.
The next year 2 years are like coming through the neck of a bottle. You will be 18 then and the freedom and challenges will change. Until then you may want to learn how to negotiate better with your parents. Here is a teen website we have found offers a lot, particularly about how to negotiate with your parents for what you want.
Support, patience and learning to negotiate and feel a bit more empowered in asking for what you want is the formula we are suggesting. We would also note that any decision should be followed with a 30-day (or less) evaluation period where all parties can have some input as to how the decision is going.
Finally, the words of Carl Jung are instructive. This is a struggle that you will be able to cope with for now, and one you will ultimately outgrow.
We send you our best thoughts . . .
Drs. Marie and Dan
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 May 2010
Daniel J. Tomasulo, D. (2010). I Wish My Dad and I Were Closer. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/05/19/i-wish-my-dad-and-i-were-closer/