Q: My son seems to be acting more closed off lately. He seems angry where I can't see a cause. He's always on his phone and I swiped it out of his room last night and read his text messages. What I found was shocking. I feel I need to confront him about them, but that would mean admitting that I looked at his phone. What should I do?
A: Although your son is going to feel that your going through his phone was an invasion of his privacy, there were factors leading up to that event which caused you to do it. What were those factors? That is what I would focus on with your son.
Make time to talk with him. Tell him that you are worried and give him examples of how his behavior has changed. If he asks if you have read his text messages, come clean. Let him know that you are there to listen and work out together any problem that he is having. He may be concerned that if he tells you what is going on involving his friends, you won't allow him to see those friends. He may not be ready to let go of his social group, or may fear not being able to find another. Some of this friend negotiating will lead him to come to his own conclusions. You need to be a supportive listener and not give directives.
On the other hand, if the texts suggest that he is in any kind of danger, obviously you must act. The fear of his finding out that you have read his texts can no longer be a factor. You are responsible for him, therefore you need to take steps to stop him from hurting himself, from being hurt or from hurting someone else.
This is a good time to contact your school counselor for support and advice. He or she can help you figure out how to handle this situation. The counselor may also have an idea about what is happening socially and can intervene with your son at school. If the texts between your son and others are physically threatening or sexually provocative, the police may need to become involved.
Q: I really don't like my 7th-grade son's girlfriend. I think she is a bad influence on him. He doesn't want to talk to or see anyone but her and his friends have stopped trying to hang out with him. How do I handle this?
A: These first middle school relationships can be all-consuming. There is a certain amount of status that accompanies having a boyfriend or girlfriend in middle school.
What is it about the girlfriend that bothers you? Try in a friendly way to learn more about her. Have a conversation with your son to show your interest in him and her.
At the same time, consider imposing appropriate rules for when the girlfriend is over; for example, they may meet in the family room and not in his bedroom together. He may not participate in co-ed sleepovers. Also, impose limits on the times when they can hang out together.
The simple truth is if you are too vocal about your dislike of the girlfriend, your son may continue the relationship longer in rebellion. Middle school kids are struggling for independence, so if you forbid the relationship he will find a way to have it on some level anyway. Fortunately, these relationships are not usually long lasting.
Anne -Marie Hughes is a local middle and high school guidance counselor. Her column appears the first Sunday of every month in The Sunday Gazette during the school year. Send questions to Ask The Counselor to firstname.lastname@example.org.