In the last couple of months I've had a few people asking advice about boys (and men) who are behaving badly in the home. I was struck by the common theme: dominating behaviour by the boy or man, coupled with a reluctance on the part of the woman (mother/partner) to use a sanction that would make the difference that was needed.
Let me enlarge.
The first story came from the mother of a nine year old boy who had bouts of temper towards his parents that included hitting, kicking and verbal abuse. It sounded like he was worse to his mother than his father. Not long after his outbursts he would return to his affectionate self, snuggling up and telling his mother he loved her.
"You've got to sort this out soon," I told her, "Right now he's smaller than you, imagine what it would be like if he's still behaving like this when he's a teenager." I asked how they were dealing with it; they had used sanctions like taking away his electronic devices or not allowing him to go and play with friends, but these weren't having the desired affect.
"What about football?" I asked. I could feel her shudder; I was treading on hallowed ground, for this was his area of excellence, this was where he shone, this might be his future – this was a place they weren't prepared to go.
"You must have a sanction he minds about," I explained, "or it won't have any effect. You don't have to ban him from football completely, you simply say 'If you carry on behaving like that you will not be going to the next football practice' or 'I'm giving you advance warning that if you swear at me the sanction will be missing the next football practice, and I will explain to your coach why you have missed it'." I later told my husband what my advice had been and he suggested a modification: giving the boy an opportunity to save face with his coach by saying, 'The first time you miss football I will not tell your coach how you have behaved at home, but if after that you do it again, not only will you miss the next practice, but I will tell your coach why.' This gives the boy a double incentive not to repeat his behaviour, and if you do end up telling the coach then you have an adult he respects on-side.
When choosing how to deal with unacceptable behaviour, it is essential that we examine our own areas of corruptibility. All the while there is a hallowed area that can not be touched, the boy will know, consciously or unconsciously, he has the power in the relationship and the bad behaviour will continue.
The second story came from someone whose daughter's friend had a younger, 17-year-old brother who was bullying the family and in particular their single mum. The brother, the oldest boy in a fatherless family, had dropped out of college and was selling drugs, but when the police came to the door his mother was not prepared to co-operate with them. However her loyalty to her son just increased his power, and soon the whole family became terrified of him. All the while the son knew that his mother would not tell the police about his threatening behaviour and his drug dealing, he retained his power over her, and his behaviour to his family and others became worse.
The third story was about a 23-year-old who had been brought up by his divorced mother with no financial help from their father, except for presents and holidays. She had managed to buy a house to raise her family in, and once her three children left home took in lodgers to contribute to her income. The boy initially had moved to his dad's and secured reasonably paid work, but then decided it was time to re-think his life, find himself and, after a short time travelling, arrived back at his mum's where he took his old bedroom that she would normally have let to a lodger. After a while he managed to get a job. When we spoke the mother was unhappy: she reported that they were having terrible rows, he was making the house so untidy she was concerned she would lose the lodgers she had, and when she asked for a financial contribution he asked what she wanted to spend it on and then they got into an argument about that.
To me the situation was clear: she had to decide on a weekly rent for her son (that may or may not be as much as her other lodgers paid) and tell him that he needed to pay this amount each week or find somewhere else to live; no other discussion was necessary. But this suggestion stepped onto hallowed ground: after struggling to singlehandedly provide for her family for years, the mother did not feel able to insist on rent from one of her children and then ask them to leave if they did not pay. So sadly, having done a wonderful job of bringing up her children, she was now allowing one of them to get away with what his father had done – not paying his way – which does no favours to her, her son or his future partners.
I heard these three stories within a few weeks of one another. They showed how important it is not only to set boundaries early on, but also to carry on setting them as the boy grows into a teenager and then a young man. Then a fourth story came my way, this time about a man in his sixties. He had had a difficult childhood and several stormy relationships over his life, but now had a new partner. They each had their own place; she was very close to her family, and her children and grandchildren visited often. She made her new partner welcome when he stayed. He was quite private and territorial, she was very welcoming to family and cooperative with her neighbours. He started to get angry at the perceived intrusion of others into her house and their world, and when they were alone again would complain, swear at her, threaten to break things, storm out and drive away, but later phone to apologise and come back.
She seemed to handle it well, remaining calm while he ranted, explaining she wanted her family and neighbours around and he needed to accept and be polite to them, that she would call the police if he broke things, that he was free to go if he wanted to.
I had only one criticism – that she didn't call him on his verbal abuse.
"He needs to know that if he's in your house he must be respectful to everyone, which includes you," I said, "and that if he's verbally abusive you will ask him to leave. You would not put up with that from your children or grandchildren, and you should not put up with it from your partner, whatever age he is."
Four stories in the same month, all variations on a theme, with the protagonists ranging from 9 years old to 67. If we don't get this boundaries thing right early on, things can spiral out of control. But it seems that we will always be given another opportunity – and when faced with it, let's do all we can to allow ourselves to be sufficiently clear-sighted, firm and calm to do what it takes to put things right.