Anna had been divorced from her husband for five years. The divorce had been extremely bitter and the relationship continued to be as bad as it could be. This acrimony was beginning to affect her relationship with her 15-year-old son, Shawn. This is how she recalled a recent incident with her son to a friend:
"Shawn wanted money for some stupid video game, and he kept arguing and arguing. I kept saying 'no,' and he just kept right on going, getting really nasty. Then he gives me this look, and it's just like his father. Just mean – deep at its core – mean. That's why I left him. And now Shawn's reacting just like his dad. I wouldn't take it from his father, and I'm not going to take it from Shawn. I lost it, and I said some stuff I probably shouldn't have. But I couldn't help it. I know that look."
There is an unfortunate phenomenon that can occur within families when parents no longer live together and continue to hate each other: The mother can sometimes project that hatred onto her son. (It doesn't help if there is a noticeable physical resemblance between the boy and his father.)
In my experience, this phenomenon seems to happen more frequently between sons and their mothers than between daughters and their fathers. This is likely because, in divorces, mothers tend to be the parent who's with the children more often and has to deal with more of the day-to-day hassles – and all the arguing and dirty looks that come with that.
In these situations, the mother reacts to her son as if he were her ex. She brings forward all of her intense feelings that come from her great bitterness toward the boy's father. This is especially unfortunate because he's just a teenage boy acting like a jerk because he's not getting his way. And yes, teens can give really mean looks, and if in response to the boy's his mother gets really angry, he may well respond to that anger in the only way he can – with more hurt and anger.
"Why does she hate me so much? She gets so mad at me all the time. Screw her."
It just keeps on going. "He is becoming just like his father." It can create a deep wedge between mother and teenage son. Not a temporary burst of anger that passes and they are back to being friends – so long as there's good food in the fridge. Not that kind of anger. But an anger that stays and can destroy their relationship – a tragedy that doesn't have to happen.
So what do you do? This is a tough one because it can be very hard to convince yourself that he's not like his father. The evil seed within the son.
"When he gets that look, it really feels like it's his dad. Maybe it's not rational, but I see it. You can't understand unless you've been where I've been."
The bottom line, however, is that he's not his father. If he's a jerk – as teenage boys can be – he deserves a reaction, but on its own merits. After all, he's a 15-year-old boy who's not getting his way and is reacting in a surly 15-year-old manner, not an adult man whom you once loved and who came to treat you very badly. It is not fair to your child and it is a disaster for you.
As soon as you start feeling the anger rising, step back and ask yourself what truly is your child's crime. "He's a teenage boy who desperately wants a video game that he doesn't have the money for and got nasty when I wouldn't put up the money." Or maybe: "He's a teenage boy who left his stuff all over the house and was rude when I nagged him about it." Or perhaps: "He's a teenage boy who didn't acknowledge me when I got home and got really mean when I told him he should act nicer." React to what he did, not to how he reminds you of his father.
Buy him the video game or don't buy it, but know that if you don't buy it he probably will be nasty for a while. Nag him or don't nag him, but know that if you do choose to nag him, while there's a better chance that he'll pick up after himself, there's also a better chance that he will be unpleasant. Tell him that you want him to act cordially when you get home, but know that if you do tell him, he may well begrudgingly act more politely, but also he may well be surly for your having criticized him. And, yes, maybe he gets a look on his face that truly is just like his father's. But it's not his father in his son. It's just his son. Really.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books and runs www.anthonywolf.com.