Two patients came into my office. One, the father of a young man in his senior year in college. He complained that Chad rarely called home. When he tried to reach him, he had to leave a message, or text him. Even then, had’s response was polite, but uninformative. He indicated that, after his divorce ten years previous, his son rarely spoke with him. Their relationship deteriorated to the point that contact between them only occurred when the son needed money, or had a problem. After graduation, Chad chose a college 2,000 miles away and continued to behave in a distant manner. Father’s concern was that, if he didn’t establish a relationship with Chad now, the opportunity for establishing one in the future would totally evaporate. Although he placed most of the blame on his ex-wife, he admitted that casual conversation and wasn’t necessarily his forte.
It shouldn’t surprise you that father was a quintessential engineer, whose world was made up of concrete facts. Thus, intangible emotional considerations weren’t part of his approach to life. He wasn’t a bad individual. He genuinely cared. But, after only one session, he wasn’t ready to hear, “You’re not meeting your child’s needs. Even if you attribute his behavior to your divorce, it doesn’t fully explain the reason for this young man’s lack of involvement. You have to assume that whatever Chad needed from you was something he has given up attempting to get. At this time, it seems he’s attempting to live his life without the hurt or disappointment he associates with trying to get your involvement.”
The second patient arrived at her session with her husband, wanting to speak about Ellie, her stepdaughter, who called her father “countless times a week”. She was at college and performing extremely well, academically but, emotionally, her stepmother described her as immature, dependent and needy. She stated that being away at school had in no way contributed to Ellie developing a sense of independence. In fact, during the two years she’d been away, she phoned more than she had when she lived in town. Her calls were described as inane, filled with inconsequential details and often presented in an hysterical manner. Father was far less critical, but he did agree that there were times she called about incidents that were far from worthy of the emotionality she demonstrated.
After listening to both parents, it seemed evident that these young people weren’t getting what they needed emotionally from their parents. Either the parents weren’t giving it because they didn’t know how, or their children weren’t asking for what they wanted, or possibly both. On the surface, these youngsters reacted in opposite fashions, one at one end of the continuum, i.e., no contact whatsoever, the other at the other end of the continuum, constantly calling, but both were sending the same message, strongly suggesting the motive behind their actions was exactly the same. They were both hungry for love. One denied his hunger, the other ordered everything on the menu, but nothing satisfied her.
Think about it. One parent never hears from his son, who seemingly isn’t interested in establishing a relationship. What he needed to say was, “Chad, I love you. I know we’re estranged, but I have no idea why. If it’s related to my divorce from your mom, I’m anxious to talk to you about it. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to years ago. I desperately want to connect with you. I don’t want to lose you and I can’t wait for a miracle to occur to unite us sometime down the line. I’m here now. Please give me a chance.” He may not get the positive response he wants, but he might be surprised by the fact that he planted seeds that can potentially germinate later and grow into the foundation for a wonderful relationship. Similarly, the second parent might say, “Ellie, I know I’m walking on dangerous waters, but please hear me. I love you. The fact that I divorced your mom years ago and married someone new doesn’t mean that I’ve left you. You’re my daughter. I always want you to be part of my life. I don’t know how to say this without risking the possibility that you’ll hear that I don’t want to hear from you, but I’m going to try. Ellie, you call constantly and I hear you saying you’re hungry for my love, so frequently I talk about the restaurants I’m familiar with. But I never seem able to choose one that will satisfy you. I know you want something from me. I also know that you have my love and my heart. But I feel I’ve failed to convey that to you. What I want between us is a relationship that will act as a springboard to help propel you into the future, not one that you need to cling to desperately in order to be more secure about your past. Please, lets’ try to work on that together.”
Obviously, the message you, as a parent, give to your children (or anyone you love) needs to be expressed in your own words. But your words must always come from your heart. They must be honest, proactive and address real issues, not the weather. It is essential for you to communicate that you may not know how to satisfy their hunger, or understand exactly what they’re looking for. Therefore, they have to tell you what they’re feeling, what they want, what they need and allow you to be there for them. You must say, “I’ll listen and I’ll try to hear. I won’t impose my choice of a restaurant on you, but I don’t know where to go or what to do unless you guide me. So don’t avoid me or call and talk about inconsequential issues, hoping that I’ll read your mind and know what you’re asking for. The truth is, I’m not very good at it, but I’m trying to learn.”
You see, no one is a perfect parent, spouse or child. Everyone has shortcomings and makes mistakes. Therefore, you need to learn to improve how you interact and verbalize. Most of all, you need to stop and think “Where is this person I’m trying to reach coming from? What are they hungry for and how can I serve it up to them in a way that will prove palatable to their heart and filling to their stomach?”