Dear Dr. Jann: My 11-year-old son says he will not go back to his father’s house because his dad and his wife smoke in the house. He tells me his dad is great to him and he loves his wife, but the smoke makes him sick. I’ve asked them to stop, but they just say, “This is my home.” He can’t breathe when he’s there and so now he refuses to see them. What do I do?
Dr. Jann says: Really good question. What if the problem isn’t one of getting along, but of lifestyle? And, parents don’t like their kids to tell them what to do, especially when you are talking about asking them to stop doing something that is as mentally and physically ingrained into their psyche as smoking.
I don’t have to go into the negatives of second hand smoke. Enough information is out there that if you don’t know second hand smoke is harmful you have been living in a cave. And, if a child has asthma or merely a cold when they visit, they can be very uncomfortable and not want to return. Some states actually restrict smoking around children, even in your own home. If you live in one of those states you have the law on your side, but even then, you still must deal with your ex directly.
Whenever there’s a problem with getting along with someone, most people expect the other person to change in order to make them happy. Asking them to change so that you can be happy doesn’t make sense to them—and it usually starts a fight. Granted I know smoking is a health issue, but for the sake of discussion, giving Dad an ultimatum that your son won’t return if he doesn’t stop smoking will probably just make him angry—and you are back at square one.
I rarely suggest that parents tell their children to pass on information to the other parent—I usually instruct parents to establish policy together, then present it to the child as a united front–even if they are no longer together. This prevents the child from having a divide and conquer attitude, but in this case, it may be important that your son is part of the discussion. Dad may not believe the problem is so dire that his son refuses to visit.
For situations like this I often suggest a meeting in a public place. People are less likely to raise their voice or act stupid when other people might see their inappropriate behavior.
Here’s a three step suggestion for problem solving with your ex: First, identify the problem. Dad’s smoking bothers your son. Second, consider possible solutions and go to the discussion with solutions—do not just complain. Third, look for the compromise. If Dad doesn’t like your suggestions, ask for his, making a point that you have to find an answer because “This is important to our son.” Your son will be sitting right there to reinforce the importance-and reinforce his love for his father. This will prevent him from thinking you put your son up to this.
Your suggested solutions might be that Dad smoke outside when your son is there. Or, possibly confine the smoking to the garage where the door can be closed. If dad says no,