Q: My 19-year-old son went away to college. Prior to his going away I had equal custody with his dad. As he got older he always told me he didn’t want to spend so much time at his dad’s, but if he attempted to tell his father, his father made him feel very guilty about not going, so we stuck to the schedule until he went to college.
This is his first Christmas home and he is again having trouble telling his father what he wants to do. He has led his dad to think he will be visiting, but he has also told me he wants to have Christmas dinner with me. What can I do? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: The predicament you describe is not that uncommon. Kids who had to go back and forth as children are finally faced with making the decision on their own after 18 and it’s very difficult for them to do. One minute they have to do something. The next minute it’s up to them — and that’s a hard transition.
Dad’s attempt to control his son using guilt will not go away just because his son has turned 18. It worked before and Dad will use it again, like any proven tactic that aids people to get what they want. However, your son is now an adult. He has to fight his own battles. Good ex-etiquette would be to guide him to establish his own boundaries with dad. He must be honest and straightforward, (Ex-etiquette rule No. 8) and make his intentions clear. Dad will eventually stop the manipulation if he realizes it won’t work. If he doesn’t stop, then your son may stop going to see him. That’s between your son and his father. Your son must be mindful not to avoid the issue just because he doesn’t want to deal with Dad’s tactics. You will see his ability to stand up to dad will improve as he matures.
Finally, it also doesn’t have to be all or nothing. He can easily spend Christmas Eve with Dad and Christmas Day with you and then switch next year. Your son just has to make the decision, openly communicate that decision with you and dad, and then do what he said he would do.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at email@example.com.