Dear Angry Father in the Cafe
Dear Angry Father in the Cafe,
I couldn't help but notice that you seemed to be having a difficult time. I certainly didn't feel comfortable saying anything to you then; may I have a few words now?
I saw and heard myself in you.
You see, though I now truly ENJOY my children, there have been so many times that I haven't.
When your thirteen year old-ish son slouched off to look at something and his mother asked, "Honey, where are you going?" I cringed when you commanded, "Leave him alone! If he doesn't order, he just won't eat with us, will he?"
A few minutes later, your son did scuffle over, drop into a club chair and look over the menu. "I'm going to have pizza." You contradicted that, "No, we just had pizza yesterday. Have something different." Summoning what seemed to be the least amount of energy he could, he glanced down again and muttered something I couldn't hear.
Your wife had on a neutral expression; was it her poker face?
I could give you lots of advice:
"Read Dr. Thomas Gordon's book."
"Look up my courses on the Internet."
"Join a group or FB discussion or somehow find support."
But, in an imaginary perfect world where we froze everyone and you did not feel defensive at all, I would choose to Active Listen you. That's the most helpful first step when the other person owns the problem.
Maybe it would go something like this:
Me: "Being a parent is no joke. It's so hard to know what to do sometimes."
You: "You have no idea what we've been dealing with. That kid's got big attitude problems."
Me: "Hm." [Acknowledgment]
You: [Story of what happened that day]
Me: "It's incredibly trying when he seems to go along with what you say only to humor you, without any real love or respect."
You: "Yeah, it's like he doesn't get it that I just have his best interests at heart."
Me: "You wish he trusted in your good intentions."
You: "I'm just about done with him. He hangs out with his friends all day playing video games, doesn't study and acts like spending time with us is the end of the world."
Me: "That hurts."
You: "All we ever do is fight."
You: "I hate it when I catch myself making threats. But it seems like that's all he ever responds to."
Me: "That seems like the only option but you don't like it."
Me: "Mmmm . . ." [Acknowledgment]
You: "I sound like a broken record because he just doesn't listen. Actually, I hate to admit it but I sound like my father and I swore I would never say the stuff he used to throw at me."
Me: "That really gets you down, you repeating a pattern that you despised in the past."
You: "I can't believe it actually."
Me: "You wish it could be some other way."
You: "Yeah, but when he gives me that look and just mumbles and shrugs his shoulders, I see red. It's all I can do to stop myself from wiping that look off his face."
Me: "It's like alarm bells go off and you can't control yourself."
You: "Yeah, he should know better than to disrespect me. It's worse when he pulls that crap with his mother."
Me: "Respect and real closeness are what you want among the three of you."
And so on with this dialogue I might have if you didn't hate me for "presuming to psychoanalyze you!" After all, Active Listening is not that at all, but rather just reflecting back the feelings and facts of what you are saying.
Only then, by truly accepting how you feel in that moment, are the seeds of change sown:
I wonder whether, now, you would be willing to hear me share?
I've been where you are, actually still am there in a way. Your son reminds me of my "easy one," the one who would go along with my strong opinions because I ALWAYS knew best.
Well, when he was 13, I took a parenting class. And I didn't even take the class because of him; it was the clashes with his younger brother that brought me to my knees.
But now, after several years of living and breathing P.E.T. skills as though my life depended on them (my identity as a mother and our family life were at stake), I notice there is still so much undoing to be done with the son who obeyed quietly.
Because giving in is NOT a good thing.
Rather, it's a lot like:
- Losing your inner compass because it's scary to listen to needs that you don't dare voice
- Fearing what your parent might do, the most devastating of which would be to withdraw love (Does my mother love me only when I am "good?")
- Neglecting the skills of self-assertion and, instead, becoming pretty good at withdrawing and even, sometimes, passive aggression (that, after all, is what I modeled for so many years)
- Taking, taking, taking it until the resentment has built so high that the wall between you seems insurmountable
So dear Angry Father, I hope you have someone to listen and help you find the insight and energy shift to become the dad you want to be. Accepting what is right now in your heart is the first step.
And then you will be better positioned to repair your relationship with your son. The backtracking won't be easy, but it will be worth it. But you probably already know that.
Wishing you peace in parenting,
If this father reminds you of a spouse (or a sibling or a friend), might you try some Active Listening? I love what the Parenting Junkie says in 3 Secrets to a Better Relationship with Your Coparent:
"See the Child Within . . . your partner. Remembering that we were all children once, and that essentially we all look for nurturance and acceptance lifelong, can soften your eyes when it comes to looking at your partner. Yes, you've currently got your hands full with the children you are responsible for. And, No, you don't need another child. Even so: we all need unconditional acceptance. We all need love. Forever. So imagine how you would want your precious little angel to be treated by their partner when they grow up - and channel that. Remember we're all in this world to seek healing and connection and a marriage can become a safe haven in which to find those things."
This is my first such "letter." Tell me what you think! I wrote it because I often have so much I wish I could share with total strangers. I'm giving myself in fantasy what I can't have in real life in the hope that it resonates with readers and might affect someone out there!
Credits: Angry father (http://www.thesuccessfulcontractor.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/frustrated.jpg)