A parent takes a difficult first step to resolve conflict with her teenage son
Joan could feel her body tighten and fine beads of sweat breaking out on her brow. She remembered how she had felt giving a speech in front of a school class. This time she knew the speech she was preparing to give was much more important—and more intimidating than the one 35 years ago.
Her audience was Jake, her 15-year-old son. They had been more or less at war since he’d entered adolescence. Now she had some difficult things to tell him.
You see, Joan had been talking with a counselor and discovered that she harbored a lot of self-doubt and insecurity. One negative effect of her lack of self-confidence was her putting unrealistic expectations on Jake. She realized that when he didn’t live up to her vaulted standards, she would see his behavior as a reflection on her worth.
Now she had to confess that to Jake and ask for his forgiveness.
“Jake,” she stammered, “come here a minute. I need to talk to you.”
Jake had heard that invitation many times, and it had never ended happily. He reluctantly dragged himself away from the TV and sullenly shuffled into the kitchen. His jaw was tight, and he rolled his eyes as he approached her, stopping just inside the room and leaning on the counter. His hands thrust in his pockets, he muttered, “What’d I do this time?”
Joan knew the script. His body language was shouting disrespect and would trigger her feelings of low self-worth. She would become defensive and angry and lash out at him for looking like that. What kind of mother would she be if she put up with his bad attitude? But this time she played a new tape in her mind and stuck to her rehearsed confession.
“Jake, I’ve learned something about myself with a counselor and realize I’ve been unfair with you. I haven’t felt good about myself and put a lot of my worth on what you do. That’s been unfair, and I want you to forgive me.”
Jake was stunned. He probably wondered who this woman was in his mom’s kitchen. He looked a bit skeptical, said nothing and went back to the TV.
Fortunately, Joan’s counselor had said not to expect much response. If she hadn’t given that word of warning, Joan would likely have followed Jake into the living room and given him a lecture. Instead, she waited patiently. She found that her confession and genuine remorse over how she’d treated Jake had changed how she looked at her son.
Joan had learned an important strategy for resolving parent-child conflict. This strategy can be reduced to three A’s: Accept yourself; accept your child; and accept your role as the parent.
Accept yourself. Explore how you feel about yourself, and don’t allow self-doubt or self-hate to be expressed toward your offspring. Until Joan realized why Jake irritated her so much, they were both caught in a mutually damaging pattern.
Accept your child. Identify the positive gifts each child has and verbally express your love and affirmation. You may need to change how you perceive your child. Rather than thinking of Jake as “Jake the disrespectful,” Joan could think of him as “Jake the helpful.” Acceptance and affirmation are essential for healthy parent-child relationships.
Accept your role as the parent. Children need parents who will provide a consistent model for moral choices and healthy boundaries. They need parents who aren’t afraid to say no when necessary. Parents who are controlled by guilt or self-doubt, however, are more likely to cave in to the insistent demands of their child. When parents grudgingly give in to their child’s protests, they are setting lifelong patterns of conflict.
Gradually, Joan saw a difference in Jake. He began to hang out in the kitchen when she was cooking, offer to help at times and even smile occasionally. He never said he forgave her, but their relationship changed forever.
Dr. Louis McBurney is a psychiatrist. He and his wife, Melissa, live in Colorado.
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