It was torture for Jason when his 13-year-old son, Dylan, gave him the “cold shoulder” and wouldn’t speak to him. Jason felt his angry reactions were justified because he believed Dylan was at fault. Jason defended his position, often lecturing Dylan. Alternatively, he would give Dylan the silent treatment right back. This would go on endlessly, creating tension for everyone in the house. Neither Jason nor Dylan wanted to be the one to break the impasse. It usually ended one of two ways: Naturally, over time, or when Dylan wanted something.
When Jason finally saw that he was actually hurting his son, he became motivated to improve their relationship and end this destructive cycle. He decided that when his son behaved this way toward him, he would make things better by ignoring how Dylan was acting, be nice and pretend everything was okay. However, even this seemed to backfire, making Dylan pull away more.
In therapy, Jason said one of Dylan’s complaints was that his dad was always too busy working and that he seemed to care more about “things” than about his son. When Dylan was excited and wanted his dad to watch him do an athletic trick in the house, Jason often was preoccupied with getting him to be cautious and warning him not to break anything. Jason failed to notice that Dylan wanted him to join him in his excitement and be proud of him.
In talking about the problem with his son, Jason remembered a grudge against his own dad: Jason’s father had not paid attention to him or talked with him, and failed to connect or show affection. As he talked about this, Jason spontaneously remembered that he too as a child gave his dad the silent treatment. He would keep it going as long as he could, hoping his dad would feel something and preparing what he would say when his dad would ask him what was wrong. But he never did.
As Jason thought about this, it suddenly occurred to him why ignoring Dylan made things escalate. He realized that maybe his son wasn’t just trying to punish him, though it felt that way, as it had when Jason’s dad had ignored him. Dylan needed Jason to feel something and show that he cared. Jason had needed the same from his dad. Dylan’s behavior was a desperate effort to communicate something that wasn’t getting through otherwise. By trying to make his dad feel rejected, Dylan wanted him to understand how Jason made him feel. Dylan hoped his dad would “get it” and respond by coming back to him.
Jason was uncomfortable being identified with his dad, and quickly pointed out that he spent more time with Dylan than his father did with him. Still, he saw that Dylan seemed to share some of the same feelings that Jason had toward his dad. Further, Jason could see that, similar to his own father, he too was unable to recognize and effectively respond to his son’s feelings, and easily retreated emotionally or became reactive.
Even when Jason recognized that he was reenacting what his dad did to him and hurting his son, he was at a loss for how to understand or respond in a helpful way when Dylan was upset. He never learned how to read and respond to his son’s feelings. Because of his own parents’ psychological limitations, the emotional capacities which form the basis of these skills were never developed during Jason’s childhood.
Empathic ability, or “mind reading,” is an aspect of brain development that occurs as parents are able to read their children’s reactions and respond emotionally in a way that helps kids regulate their emotional states. This process also involves the parent helping the child understand what is happening interpersonally and emotionally. The child digests and internalizes such experiences, building the capacity to make sense of themselves and relationships, and to manage emotions in interpersonal situations.