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.
The Skills to Reconnect
Jason needed to be taught the skills required to restore his relationship with Dylan when it became disrupted. He had to write down, learn and practice the steps involved in handling emotionally difficult situations in order to prepare himself, and build new behavior patterns.
The first step was to identify the high-risk situations for him and Dylan and spell out the recurring, predictable behaviors. There usually are a limited number of such recurring triggering events. Learning what they were helped Jason be more vigilant, making risky situations more easily recognizable, familiar and predictable – and reinforcing awareness that his instincts fail him at these times.
Reviewing examples of key incidents that have occurred is helpful in the process of identifying and delineating typical unsafe scenarios. A range of situations usually represent a few common themes to look out for and remember. In this case, problems between Jason and his son were activated when Dylan felt ignored or unimportant.
Jason used his memories of how he felt when his dad failed to notice him to help himself develop an empathic understanding of Dylan’s feelings when this happened. He worked on identifying predictable reactions to his son in these situations. Jason learned to recognize his vulnerability to behaving badly with Dylan at these times, realizing that when Dylan ignored him he was reminded of how he felt when he was unable to have an impact on his dad.
Once Jason knew in advance the “answers” that would normally come from instinctive “mind reading,” the next step was to recognize risky situations in the moment and use his knowledge and awareness to handle himself differently. Using the guidelines below, Jason learned to resist succumbing to maladaptive instincts when triggered, and instead practice new, more effective behaviors with his son.
- Take a moment to step back from emotional reactions by reminding yourself that you have new tools to handle this better.
- Take some recovery time before approaching your child, reminding yourself to have restraint and pull back from instincts to react defensively.
- Once your equilibrium is restored, let your child know that you would like to talk.
- During the talk, don’t elaborate on your own feelings or justify your actions, and be concise in what you say.
- Explain in simple language to your child your understanding of what he is feeling and what happened. For example, in the case of Dylan and the athletic trick: “I know you were excited to show me the trick and wanted me to be excited too, and proud. I took the air out of your balloon. I got distracted by my own anxiety in that moment and made you feel uncared about. “
- Take responsibility and apologize. In the example of Jason taking the phone call, he could have said “I know you wanted to spend time together and I interrupted that by taking the call. I ignored you and then acted like I didn’t do anything wrong. I am sorry. I understand why you are mad. Maybe tomorrow we can try again.” (Offer to do something with him he enjoys.)
The capacity to repair dysregulations as they occur is an essential component of secure, healthy relationships. Restoring the flow between parent and child involves the parent making adjustments in response to the child’s emotional state. Such responsiveness allows children to come to know their internal experience. Further, when the parent repeatedly restores the emotional rhythm of the relationship, it fosters repeated experiences of being able to have an impact, and the child internalizes a sense of mastery, security, and trust in him- or herself and others.
Jason learned new ways to respond to his own and Dylan’s feelings, extricating himself and Dylan from the chains of his past, and developing a healthier and more continuous “real-time” connection with his son. Though at times he continued to slip into old patterns, Jason was largely able to break the intergenerational cycle by learning to be “on to” his blind spots and develop more effective behaviors. In this way, Jason allowed Dylan the opportunity to develop skills and capacities that he never had the chance to develop when he was a boy, thereby fulfilling his wish to truly be a better dad to his son than his dad was able to be to him.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.