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Husband is negative about teenage son. Carolyn Hax readers give advice.

Carolyn Hax (The Washington Post)
7 min

We asked readers to channel their inner Carolyn Hax and answer this question. Some of the best responses are below.

Dear Carolyn: My husband (“Dad”) has gotten increasingly negative about our 17-year-old son (“Son”), and is constantly giving me the “glass half empty, negative projection” with him. If I say I am going to ask Son to mow the lawn, he will say, “Oh, he won’t do it. He’ll just argue and try to get out of it.” Or if we are watching Son play his sport, Dad will say to me, “Oh look, they put Son in the game. Well, he will not play well because he didn’t hydrate enough, and they’ll be sending him to the bench within five minutes.”

This has gotten much more frequent over the past couple of years, and it's with everything now. I have tried everything: Ignoring it and not responding, saying “Have a little faith in your son," playing dumb when he's wrong ("Huh. It's been 20 minutes and he's still in the game and playing well. Isn't that strange?") and having a serious sit-down conversation about it with him (during which I was told that I need to be his “sounding board" when he is frustrated with the teenagerishness of Son because if I am not the sounding board he will end up saying these things to Son, which he will regret).

The thing is I am so sick of it, and it’s really bringing me down. I can handle it now and then, but it’s every single day. Yes, he’s a teenager and yes, he tries to get out of chores and doesn’t always prepare for sports (or anything) the way he should … but he’s a great kid and is responsible and nice and a good person. I just feel like it’s a standard that Son will never live up to because even if he does the thing perfectly (goes right out to mow the lawn or whatever) I’m reminded that “well, this time he did but we all know what will happen next time!” Any thoughts on how I should handle this or should I just absorb it and be thankful he doesn’t say these things directly to Son?

— Frustrated

Frustrated: No, you shouldn’t set the bar as low as “At least he’s not directly undermining Son’s self-esteem.” The problem is your husband’s, and one day the pressure valve you’re providing isn’t going to be enough. And the fundamental disapproval of the child himself, as opposed to acknowledging and working on behaviors, is damaging. Children will carry their parents’ voices with them all their lives. If it is a loving, supportive one, they gain strength from that. If it’s a critical one that focuses on their shortcomings, they’ll carry that everywhere, into every endeavor. Your son is missing the loving, supportive father he deserves and needs.

Tell your husband (at a calm moment, in a calm way) that for your son's sake, you're next-leveling this issue because serving as the safety valve for an issue he won't even try to fix is not something you're willing to do. You gave it time and you gave him the benefit of the doubt, and clearly this issue isn't going to fix itself.

Make a counseling appointment and let him know you expect him to go with you, for your son’s sake. If he doesn’t go, then ask the therapist for best practices to help your son deal with his dad’s disapproval.

— Moby Duck

Frustrated: I imagine there’s a larger issue here with your husband. Does he show signs of depression? Is he negative about other issues in this way? Does he have unresolved issues with his own father? I also think your son must feel the vibe on some level that his dad is dissatisfied. I think some outside intervention with a therapist could help, ideally with both you and your husband. If he refuses to go, talk to him about what might be underneath all this negativity. Is a mental health/health check in order? I think you absolutely have every right to shut this down. It’s a threat on his part that he will say things directly to your son. He should not be threatening you. Tell him, if you can, to find another sounding board, like a therapist who might be able to work on his negativity, or a friend who is also a dad of teenagers. Good luck and I’m sorry you have to deal with this. I’m glad you are there to support your son, since his dad apparently can’t.

— Another Mom

Frustrated: As a teenager close to your son’s age, I hope to answer this from our perspective. The comments from our parental figures have a lasting impact on how we view ourselves. I myself still wonder if I am too fat, too loud, too lazy because of what comments my parents have made. I believe your husband takes one step in the right direction to not speak this to your son outright, but he and you should know that it’s not so easy to hide such a sentiment just by holding your tongue. We teenagers notice far more than some might believe.

You, however, should not be bearing the brunt of this negativity. I understand that the stresses of parenting are immense, but perhaps you and your husband would benefit from some introspection. Perhaps it is out of fear of failure that these faults are so magnified, perhaps it is the words of a parental figure of your husband’s past. I believe that you and your husband can work together, with resources such as counseling to better understand the root of these persistent feelings, and in that you will have done two wonderful things.

1. Understand yourselves better so that you can better parent your son.

2. Show your son that conflicts can be resolved without festering lonely resentment.

— Hyacinth

Frustrated: I would ask Dad why he dislikes Son so much. When Dad denies it (which he will), recite all the negative things he’s said about Son over the past couple of weeks. Point out that there isn’t one single positive thing he’s said during that time frame. Then inform Dad it’s not your job to be his “sounding board” so he doesn’t say these unkind things to Son, it’s Dad’s job to figure out why he has this mind-set and decide what he wants to do about it. Tell Dad you will no longer be his “sounding board,” and if he chooses to say these things to Son instead and ruins their relationship, that is his fault, not yours. It’s time for Dad to take some responsibility for his thoughts and actions. If he is so desperate for a sounding board about his terribly flawed kid, he can go to therapy.

— Anonymous

Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read last week’s installment here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.