Q: I am a divorced father of two teenage boys. They are good kids and I respect their privacy; I don’t track them by cellphone. I believe in the golden rule of treating others how you’d want to be treated and I wouldn’t want anyone tracking my every move. Their mom does track them. But what really irks me is that she tracks them even when they are staying with me; thus if I go somewhere with them, she is tracking me. She’ll also send annoying texts. I’m single (she’s not) and I might be out on a Friday night, be on the way to get my kid and I’ll get a text like, “Isn’t it a little late for [name of son] to be at his girlfriend’s?” (girlfriend’s parents also home). Isn’t this wrong, tracking the kids when I have custody? I have hinted to her that I think this is wrong but am afraid she’ll fly off the handle if I formally ask her to stop.
A: This is a sticky one. Teen boys, defensive ex, tracking gone amok - there are no easy answers in any of this. I have a lot of respect for your trust and the importance of privacy, and it seems that your boys have risen to the occasion. If you ask a million people for their opinions on this, you will get a million thoughts, so here are mine.
As a parent coach, I am going to advocate for preserving the peace at (almost) all costs. I would like to give your ex the benefit of the doubt and hope that she isn’t as controlling and paranoid as she sounds, or that she has a past that explains this extreme control. In any case, you are on one end of the spectrum (no surveillance) and she is on the other end (total surveillance, even when they are with you).
You are probably not going to bring her to your side, so why don’t you do some careful listening. Say to her: “I have noticed you are really worried about Tom and Jerry when they are out. Tell me more about that.” Yes, you may bristle at even asking her opinion but, generally, humans relax a bit when they feel free to express their worries. And, if you are truly ready to listen without judgment, you may find that you can empathize with her fears. She may have some evidence that you didn’t know that could change your outlook. You don’t know until you ask.
The worst-case scenario is that she stays in attack mode, doubles down on tracking the kids and attacks your parenting. If this is the case, then you simply have to do your best until the boys graduate and move away. Sadly, your ex is hurting her relationship with her boys and, as annoyed as you are, they are the victims here. Teens don’t do well when they are treated with chronic suspicion (especially when they haven’t earned it). As the father, you are going to need to be a container for their frustration and disappointment. Their anger at their mother may come out sideways on you, it may result in them lying to your ex and it may result in sneakiness when they are with her (which is what mistrust and control yields in most adults). Navigating this with your sons will take some problem-solving, empathy and lots of patience. This is unfair for you (you’re not the one controlling them), but, alas, this is the gig. Unless you are ready to call lawyers, you don’t have that many years left to manage this. Put a price on this: What are you willing to spend with lawyers to address this problem?
If your ex is amenable to finding a middle ground, be prepared to still feel surveilled and perturbed. You want to reach a place where at least you don’t feel like you are being watched and need to respond to her panic, so work from both of your needs when you have custody of the boys. Decide on your boundary and keep it. “Ex-wife, when I have custody of the boys and we are out, and you text me, unless there is an emergency, I am not going to respond. That’s what we decided on in the custody agreement and I am sticking to it. If you would like to discuss curfews, reach out to me at another time and we can hop on the phone.” Your ex may not enjoy that boundary, but you don’t have to bend to her unreasonable will. Hold your boundary and keep your phrasing clear and kind, “I am happy to talk to you about the curfews, but I will not respond to your texts when I have custody.”
But I am hoping that if you actively listen and show empathy, you will both come to a reasonable agreement. Points to not make when you talk to her: that this issue needs to be solved in one conversation, that she is going to lose her kids due to her controlling ways, that they are going to turn 18 and block her, that she is unreasonable, “crazy,” or any word where we call her mental wellness into question. Of course you are justified in your anger and frustration, but we are working toward what is best for the boys. This is going to be (and already is) humbling for you. Just remember: It is harder on your boys.
Find friends who understand you and use them as sounding boards, find a good therapist, find anyone that can help you steady and see the larger picture. Your patience won’t be rewarded now; the reward will be the relationship you share with your boys as they grow into young men. Keep the faith and good luck.