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Fatherly Advice: Is It Weird When Mom Snuggles With a Teenager?

Affectionate adolescents aren't the norm, but that doesn't mean reciprocating their affection is coddling.

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“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly parenting advice column by the experts at Fatherly. Need hard-won insights and scientific facts to resolve a parenting dilemma or family dispute? Email advice@fatherly.com. Need justifications for parenting decisions you’ve already made? Ask someone else. We’re far too busy for that nonsense.

Fatherly,

I am an involved father of a 14-year-old son, engaged to a woman who has three additional children (24, 14, 7). I have managed to successfully navigate the relationship with the 24-year-old (he’s an adult and out of the house); however, my fiancée has a much stronger attachment to her 14-year-old. He is clearly her favorite and I believe a lot of that is driven by the fact that he is the most challenging child — he has ADHD, which is untreated. I’ve struggled to give him some tools, like table manners, that will allow him to be independent, at great cost to my relationship with him and his mother. As I try to establish a new parental model with my fiancée, I get the most pushback from her when I suggest not coddling him so much.

I understand her need to be affectionate, but I struggle with being able to articulate what is appropriate and not appropriate. The best example I can think of involves our bedroom. I do not allow my son to crawl into bed with us. While there are times I feel it is a harsh stance, my father taught me that at a certain age — with my body changing — there were just some things that I should not want to do anymore with my mom and dad. Exceptions exist, of course, but snuggling in bed isn’t standard.

I’d love to know if I’m crazy for drawing that line and how I might better articulate my stance to a parent who is totally okay when her son waltzes into our room and plops on our bed.

Gino,
North Carolina

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I get where you’re coming from. I received the same lessons from my father. I remember, as an affectionate grade-schooler, I attempted to crawl up in my father’s lap and kiss his cheek while he was conversing at a table of men. My affection clearly embarrassed him. He pushed me away and asked, “Why don’t you put a flower behind your ear or something?” I was young but old enough to understand he was saying my desire for physical affection was feminine and bad.

You need to understand that a 14-year-old boy is still a boy, despite growing into adolescence. The fact that he’s seeking closeness means that he is looking for comfort and affection. There’s a reason for that. You should attempt to figure out what that is while also understanding that affection isn’t “coddling.” It sounds like there is some actual coddling going on in regards to behavior, but it also sounds like a number of things are getting conflated.

Provide affection and provide boundaries.

I think, considering your focus on the bed, your question is couched in a fear that his affection could somehow threaten your boundaries in a sexual or quasi-sexual way. And there might even be some jealousy mixed in there. But you have to remember that your adult context for the bed is not necessarily his adolescent context for the bed. It’s more likely that being close to you and his mother in your bedroom makes him feel comforted. Don’t assume there’s an Oedipal urge there.

Does research point to guidelines for when a kid should stop sharing a parent’s bed? Sure. Psychologists and parenting experts agree kids should not share a bed with a parent who wants them there for their own comfort. But that doesn’t sound like your problem. That said, I’m not going to tell you to let the big kid into your bed. I am, however, going to tell you that you and your fiance need to decide on a different manner of providing comfort and affection — hopefully something less uncomfortable.

There will be some give and take, but if you approach this from a place of generosity, the conversation should go fairly well.

But be honest: The reason you can’t articulate the problem with your soon-to-be stepson’s manner of displaying affection is that it’s your problem, not his. There’s nothing that suggests being affectionate with adolescents will make them incapable adults. You’re just uncomfortable and, yes, you should try to get over it. I’m not saying that you will — our fathers leave a mark — but that you should try. A little more hugging or wrestling might help. If that’s too hard, then double down on the verbal affection. Allow him to feel close and safe.

Will this lead to further neediness? Likely not. In fact, his ability to show care and affection will probably be a boon for him in the future — far more so than displaying proper manners. Openness and vulnerability are great qualities in a partner. If you teach him how to communicate appropriately and give him a strong sense of values, the extra dose of affection won’t spoil him and should help him become a slightly more secure guy than you are. That’s called progress and, yeah, it can be a bit uncomfortable at times.

 

Fatherly,

My nephew, who is 8, is a good kid. Sweet. Gentle. But he’s been playing a lot of Fortnite and a few weeks before Christmas he lost a game and proceeded to slam his iPad down and stomp on it out of frustration. His parents took the right step, I think, by explaining what he did wrong, putting a restriction on his gameplay, speaking to him about his behavior, and telling him that he has to save up his allowance to get another iPad (this would take a long time, as he makes something like $10 a week). However, for Christmas, they surprised him with a new iPad, which sort of undermines their entire plan, doesn’t it?

Greg,
The Internet

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Yes, Uncle Greg, the parents screwed this one up. And, frankly, it all started with the insane idea to give an 8-year-old an iPad. I had this same insane idea, and much like your sweet, gentle nephew, my sweet, gentle son threw his (supposedly kid-proof) tablet on the ground in frustration and stomped it to oblivion.

It’s always devastating to see your child willfully destroy something so valuable. In these circumstances, parents have to grapple with the fear that their child might have a serious behavioral problem. Then they need to contend with the kid’s sadness and guilt after the kid realizes what they’ve done. Finally, parents need to find a reasonable path of discipline through burning parental anger about their kid being so thoughtless and selfish.

Sounds like your nephew’s parents were on the right track. They’d picked the path of “natural consequences.” The idea is that the discipline should naturally flow from the transgression. So yes, the kid smashes when playing video games? Lock down the video game time. The kid smashes an iPad make them save up enough money to replace it on their own. Perfect.

But then, these hapless parents gave into their damn sense of empathy. I get it. It sucks to see a child suffering. It’s hard to see them hurting and wanting and wrestling with the consequences of their bad behavior. It can feel as difficult for parents to watch as it is for kids to experience. But, instead of dealing with it, these parents dove for Christmas relief. They are clearly discomfort-averse.

What has this kid learned? That his parents are pushovers. He’s learned that he can wait them out. He’s learned that having an iPad now is more important than self-growth and the hard work of saving for what you want. And for what? So he can play more frustrating apps? So he can keep from feeling left out? Certainly, it’s not because the iPad is somehow good for his education and development. Because that’s a lie, and one, sadly, all parents tell themselves.

Here’s the thing with discipline: In order for it to work, or mean anything, then it needs to be consistent. This is not to say that parents can’t change their mind. That’s just silly. I’m a strong believer in being able to “rethink my position”, but that’s only in cases where my discipline does not fit the infraction. Like when I say, “You made such a ridiculous mess you’re not having ice cream again until you’re 14.” That’s not a natural consequence. I can rethink my position. But when the consequences are reasonable, well considered and natural, parents absolutely need to follow through.

In the end, I’m glad you have your eyes on these softies. They need a bit more guidance.