Avoid the power struggle

Reader Question: My 14-year-old son does not brush his teeth, except during the week before going to the dentist. He doesn’t have any cavities, his breath is fine, his check-ups at the dentist are at the “acceptable” level (not great, but passable), and his teeth look fine. So he feels like it’s an unnecessary bother. I nevertheless am concerned that he is setting himself up for dental problems. My wife wants to clamp down on this and enforce him brushing his teeth very closely, which would consist of being in the bathroom with him and supervising his brushing. If we don’t watch him, he will go in the bathroom and just do a perfunctory job, or just wet his toothbrush and say he brushed. Any advice?  

rosemondMy advice is that you accept you have done and said everything you can do and say to get him to realize the importance of brushing his teeth and stop doing or saying anything. Have you not yet figured out that short of standing over him while he brushes—something that is going to get very tiresome very quickly—you aren’t going to win this battle? And I suspect, by the way, that this has turned into a power struggle that he is winning, he knows he’s winning, and he is going to continue winning no matter what you do.

If you stand over him in the bathroom twice a day, you are only going to stimulate more passive-aggressive behavior from him and become increasingly exasperated. He’s going to see to that. Drop it. It is only a matter of time before his peers begin telling him he has bad breath. One cannot neglect brushing forever and not develop halitosis. You can also inform him that if he develops a cavity, it will be his job to pay for the repair, and that his privileges will be suspended until he has satisfied the debt. Let this monkey be on his back, not yours.

Reader Question: My 18-year-old son and a slightly younger friend recently found some mice and decided to dispose of them. They drowned one and set the other one on fire. When I confronted my son for torturing animals, his response was, “They’re just mice.” Is this typical boy behavior or should I be concerned?

 

rosemondThis may be “boy behavior” in that boys are certainly more likely to do such things than girls, but it is definitely not typical boy behavior. Animal torture and abuse is a very strong marker of Antisocial Personality Disorder. The website “How to Spot a Sociopath” (http://www.wikihow.com/Spot-a-Sociopath) defines APD as a “disregard for the feelings of others, a lack of remorse or shame, manipulative behavior, unchecked egocentricity, and the ability to lie in order to achieve one’s goals.”

The mere fact that your son tortured mice to death is not, in and of itself, diagnostic, but it certainly raises suspicions. His cavalier attitude when you confronted him raises those suspicions even higher.

The question turns on whether or not other aspects of your son’s behavior fit the criteria. It is possible, in other words, for a person to exhibit an isolated sociopathic behavior without actually being a sociopath. If, however, your son habitually lies, seems callous toward the problems of others, is generally narcissistic, and often manipulative of others, then I would recommend a professional evaluation. He’s still young enough that if he’s confronted with a problem of this sort in a professional setting, he can possibly make some corrections to the direction his life is taking.

John Rosemond

Family psychologist John Rosemond is America’s most widely-read parenting expert. Learn more about John at www.rosemond.com

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