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Son’s behavior puts rift between couple

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Mr. Atwater: My wife grew up in a family where drinking was the norm. It took place on most occasions and, in fact, most days.

Her dad, now deceased, was, by all accounts, an alcoholic and at times a pretty scary guy. Her oldest brother left home at 17, and her middle brother kind of stuck it out to protect his little sister (my wife) and her mother.

The oldest brother became an alcoholic, and the middle sibling has stumbled from relationship to relationship, job to job, virtually unable to function. Her mom passed away last year, a bitter, manipulative person who could think only about herself.

My wife has done well between therapy and Al Anon, but when it comes to our son, she seems to me to be over-the-top in her concern about whether he uses drugs or drinks. He’s a sophomore in high school and doing well, although he’s had a couple incidents with pot use and we know he’s used alcohol at parties.

She insists we drug test him and watches him like a hawk during nonschool hours, monitoring his whereabouts and making him check in by phone everywhere he goes. He now comes to me to ask for things and is angry at his mom.

I try to stay neutral, but she and I argue about how she’s parenting. Am I too soft or is she hyper vigilant?

Dear Reader: What you describe seems to be a systemic problem rather than a “one way or the other“ problem.

Sometimes when one parent has a lot of energy around a particular issue, the other parent naturally feels the need to “balance” the equation rather than act according to their own values. My guess is that if your wife backed off, you would object to some of the things your son is doing every bit as much as your wife.

Rather than focus on your wife’s “over-the-top” behavior, step up and handle some of your son’s misbehavior. I’ve noticed dads, at times, let the communication and the day-to-day parenting be the venue of the moms. Rather than have your son come to you when he’s angry at his mom and bond around his resentment, foster a relationship with him around common interests.

Consider going to counseling with your wife and find out what she’s learning and maybe learn a few things yourself. I don’t think people generally end up together by accident, so maybe there’s a part you play here you are unaware of. You also might try going to an Al Anon meeting with her to see what happens there.

I think rather than arguing about hyper vigilance, you’d have far greater success by moving closer and making your own changes.

• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email by visiting

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