I am a single parent with seventeen- and twenty-year-old sons. Over the years, I have, unintentionally and regrettably, shouted quite loudly at my children when they have misbehaved. My twenty-year-old hasn’t seemed to be bothered, but my seventeen-year-old has become emotionally very distant. He has hinted that it is because I always end up lecturing and shouting and he’s had enough. He said he also feels very controlled by me and I’m not giving him trust or freedom to grow. I feel so bad and want to resolve this. What can I do to mend our relationship?
Hope for Healing
Dear Hope for Healing,
For those listening in to our conversation, let me be clear that I do not condone yelling at children. It is abusive. It can inhibit children’s ability to connect with themselves and others.
Now, to my correspondent, let me honor you for owning this. Having made many mistakes as a parent when things were stressful in my two-parent family, I have enormous sympathy for those who make them when dealing with all that stress alone. You deserve to be acknowledged for the loyalty you have shown your children by hanging in there, for the sacrifices you’ve made in their upbringing, and for the humility you’re demonstrating by owning up to the problem you’ve contributed to.
Here are some suggestions as you prepare for this conversation.
1. “Not bothered” isn’t “not affected.” First of all, I would not assume that your twenty-year-old’s appearance of being unaffected means he was unaffected. Everything I offer below should be considered for that child as well.
2. Acknowledge, listen, and commit. Your central challenge is to rebuild trust. If your behavior has harmed them, the only way to rebuild trust is to draw a line between the past and the future with a punctuated conversation. Specifically, one that helps them see those two time periods as separate and exercise hope that change is possible.
a. Begin this conversation by acknowledging and owning your past pattern of responding aggressively. Don’t do it in a summary fashion to preserve your dignity or authority. Own it. Describe specific instances and the full extent of the pattern. Your twenty-year-old may try to cover it up for you or encourage you to minimize it—but don’t let him do it. Ask for a moment to lay out the history in the way you think it should be done.
b. Then, invite your sons to share how your past behavior has affected them. They may respond differently. The twenty-year-old may suggest it was no big deal. The seventeen-year-old may turn it into an opportunity to blame you for more than you deserve. In either case, listen. Use the AMPP skills from Crucial Conversations. If one or the other does not share much, let him know the door is always open as he reflects on this issue in the future and gains new introspective insight.
c. Next, make a commitment for how you will handle emotionally triggering situations in the future. Be clear and specific. For example, “If I am feeling upset, I will take a time out rather than risk aiming my emotion at you.” If you do a good job in this conversation, they will become attentive to evidence of change in you. It will be crucial that you generate new evidence for them soon—or you’ll lose this fragile window of hope.
3. Do periodic check-ins. At least monthly, take one of your children to lunch or dinner and include the question, “Can you give me some feedback about the new changes I’m making?” Listen to all feedback. If you’ve made mistakes, own them. If they think you’ve made mistakes but you disagree—listen anyway. The content of what you hear is important. Even more important is the evidence you are creating that you can listen.
4. Seventeen has its own rules. Some would tell you that your seventeen-year-old being distant and accusatory is redundant. Those behaviors are part of being seventeen. I agree. Part of what seventeen-year-olds have to do is separate from parental influence in order to form their own identity. At times, it’s not a pretty process. At least—unlike some species—they don’t turn on you and eat you. Although sometimes it might feel like that. As you own what you need to from the past, don’t assume that your efforts will produce some immediate result in “reforming” the behavior of your teen. You aren’t doing it to fix him—you’re doing it to fix you. Let him take responsibility for his own growth process and let the process take the time it needs.
5. Minimal boundaries and maximum validation. Your seventeen-year-old is giving you feedback about lecturing, shouting, and controlling. Listen to that. Take a look at it. Are you holding boundaries appropriate to a seventeen-year-old who is about to step into full adulthood? Or, are you retaining some that are more appropriate to a younger child? Show him you’re willing to negotiate within reason. Even when you disagree—listen deeply and validate fully the emotions, resentments, and frustrations expressed. There is hope for healing. You can change. The relationship can improve. It may take time. Let it. Don’t impose your needs on your child’s freedom. If you surrender your wish to control progress, you gain immediate peace. Intimacy cannot be coerced—only earned.