Dear Crucial Skills,
Please help us!
Our 28-year-old son has been defensive and distant for a long time. He is employed below his ability level and we have often been confused about his inability to get a better job given his degree. Finally my husband hit me with this scary thought: maybe he didn’t get his degree.
Today I discovered through public information that my husband’s suspicions are right. We want to talk to our son about this. He lives an hour away and we don’t see him that often, so we called and asked him to visit with us and told him that we wanted to discuss something of importance. We were afraid if we mentioned the topic on the phone we wouldn’t have the opportunity to frame the conversation, build safety, and show our support. He wanted to know what it was about and we said we’d rather wait to discuss in person.
We know this made him feel unsafe, but didn’t know how else to approach it. He wrote us an e-mail and told us he felt backed into a corner, exactly what we didn’t want. If we tell him over the phone that we want to discuss his future and offer support now that we know he didn’t graduate, we’re afraid he’ll just hang up and feel threatened.
Please advise us. Should we simply say “We know you didn’t graduate and we are not here to pass judgment, but we would like to talk about the consequences and hear your thoughts?”
You’re right, this is challenging and awkward. It made me nervous just reading it. Part of my anxiety stemmed from sharing your same concerns as a parent and part stemmed from the words you used when framing the issue. From my perspective, there is more here than first meets the eye.
First, let’s directly address one simple fact rather than nibble around the edges. Of course you’re going to pass judgment about your son’s not graduating. You aren’t a dispassionate third party who doesn’t really care if he graduates or not. You sent him off to kindergarten and stayed up late working on science projects, and now that he falls short of actually getting his degree—without even telling you—you can’t sit down and simply “talk about the consequences” without implying disappointment.
Second, rather than asking your son directly about graduating, you became suspicious and “discovered through public information” that he hadn’t finished his degree. In your mind you were concerned parents doing what it takes to help your son achieve his potential. You needed information before you could act, so you sought it out. But you didn’t talk to him directly, and that’s going to affect safety.
Third, the fact that your son “felt backed into a corner” when you asked if you could discuss something of importance with him is not a good sign. My guess is that you tipped your hand through your tone or that you have a history of meeting to talk about important things and those discussions end in confrontations where you tell him to “straighten up and fly right.”
So where do you begin? You’re right about not holding this type of crucial conversation over the phone or via e-mail.
I’d start by asking what you really want. If I were you, I’d be most worried that my relationship is such that my son doesn’t want to talk to me about serious issues. For me, despite the fact that not graduating is a big deal, keeping it hidden is an even bigger one. Let me restate that: Not feeling comfortable to bring you into his confidence and reasoning when it mattered early on—and now not wanting to talk to you about something he thinks may turn ugly—is the big issue. He doesn’t feel safe.
Parents continually face a dilemma. If your kids have the courage and integrity to tell you about something inappropriate they’ve done, do you thank them and let them off—so it’ll always be safe for them to approach you? Or do you still discipline them in some way, ensuring that they understand that deviation doesn’t come without consequence, but then run the risk of shutting them off from approaching you again?
You now face the adult version of this dilemma. With younger children it’s your job to discipline them in a loving tone. They still face consequences, but it’ll never be the loss of your love. With adult offspring, discipline is no longer in play. You won’t be grounding your son for letting you down. You’re now operating in a different mode.
If I were you, I’d work on creating interactions wherein your son feels comfortable and supported. He’s cutting you off and distancing himself. It’s time to rebuild the bridge. Whenever you meet and talk, focus on what’s going well. Unless your son is about to drop off a cliff, you don’t have to speak up immediately about anything. As you continue to create a safety zone for your son, one day he’ll feel comfortable talking without fear of attack or lecture and if he so desires, he’ll talk to you about not finishing his degree. Until then, focus on the big issue. Work on what you really want—an open and honest relationship supported by a deep sense of love and safety.
Good luck on this challenging issue. You obviously love your son and eventually this will go a long way toward getting you to where you want to be.