Dear Dr. Wolf,
My 14-year-old son "caught" my husband smoking outside. My husband quit smoking four years ago but has apparently started again without telling any of us. My son is very angry and has lost significant respect for his dad. I have tried to explain to my husband the loss of trust, but he feels our son should be able to move on. I honestly don't know if I need more help dealing with my husband or my son. I just need to find something to help our son deal with the mistrust he is experiencing now.
Caught in Between
Dear Caught in Between,
Parents of teenagers automatically have a terrible problem: They are human beings. Which means they, like all other human beings, have flaws.
Little kids don't seem to care about this. (The notable exception being when they're not getting their way: "You're the meanest Mom in the world!") They typically keep you on a pedestal, as their sense of security depends on having an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good Mommy and Daddy.
But teenagers, now not so dependent, with more sophisticated brains, do notice and do care that Most Exalted Mommy or Daddy are not nearly so exalted as they thought. And when a parent shows serious failings, it can be a real shock - for them, it can feel very much like seeing them fall from a pedestal. Teens can feel hurt and angry, even betrayed.
So what do you do when confronted by a disillusioned teen?
The good news is that there is a solution. But it doesn't comes from anything that you can do.
Mainly, the solution depends on what has happened between your husband and your son up to now. Has your husband been a good father - caring, involved, not too harsh? Has your husband been there for him? If so (and I am making that assumption), then your son is confronted with two competing realities: the up-to-now good dad, and the dad who has disappointed him by hiding his failure to stop smoking.
What usually happens is the teenager begins to move toward a more adult view of the world: Your son gets to understand that the world is less black and white - and more complicated - than he'd imagined. Faced with the kind of dilemma that your son is dealing with, most teens do gradually come to reconcile the contradictory realities.
"Dad has been a good father, but he has not been honest with me about quitting smoking. He is not someone who I can completely trust to be honest with me. He is still my dad, but maybe not so wonderful and perfect as I had thought. I somehow have to be able to love him, but it will be loving this new not-so-perfect dad."
Usually they can. Usually - with time - they move closer to the view that most of us, as adults, have of our parents: They were good parents. But they sure weren't perfect.
What you can say to your son? A statement that recognizes how he feels, how you view what happened - but probably not too much more. Perhaps something like:
"I know you are disappointed in your father. You're disappointed that he was unable to stop smoking and that he hid it from us. Stopping smoking is very hard. And people who fail to stop are usually embarrassed about it. And sometimes they hide it. They are embarrassed that if you find out they will look weak."
It would be a mistake to try to convince your son that it is not such a big deal, that he should be able to get past it. He feels how he feels. Trying to convince him otherwise will likely only prompt him to dig in his heels.
What should you do in regard to your son's father? Probably the smartest thing is to stay out of it. It is fine to say your piece - which it sounds like you already did.
"Our son has lost trust in you. He feels angry, disappointed. He will get past it. But don't expect it right away. It takes time."
But mainly you just need to be supportive of both your husband and your son. And wait.
"Excuse me, I want to exchange my father."
"What seems to be the problem?"
"This one has lots of flaws."
"I'm sorry, that's the only way we make them."