“My very close relationship with my son who is now 22 changed when he changed schools in 9th grade when he dramatically distanced himself from me. When he is with us during Christmas or summer breaks he is nice and family oriented but somehow always avoids spending quality time with me, never talks about private matters, and sometimes reveals that he blames me for things in his life that never occurred to me, like changing the school for him which put him through hard times or not taking his problems seriously enough. I feel his rejection of me and it hurts. We are slipping apart and I think I am not very able to deal with this. It sometimes makes my life feel worthless. Do you have any advice for me??”
“Lady Liberty” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire
Young adults separating from their parents
I’m so sorry for your pain. Younger children will generally idealize their parents, and when they become old enough to recognize their flaws, they can become disappointed, annoyed, and openly critical.
It is also very common for children to distance themselves from their parents when they are teenagers and young adults – this is natural and to be expected in a healthy child. They can become hyper-critical of their parents, blaming them for any struggles they face. They also can become hyper-sensitive to being judged or controlled by their parents.
It is a positive sign that your son is visiting you during Christmas and summer, and that he is polite. It is important to keep that connection even if it feels superficial to you. You may desire deeper connection and to talk about private matters with him, but you must resist pressing him in any way. When he is ready he will come to you.
If and when he does say anything about his life, try hard not to be reactive; do not judge or give advice unless he asks for it. Simply listen and try to be supportive. Do otherwise, and he will clam up and further distance himself from you.
Sudden change in child
It is possible that something bad happened to your son in 9th grade, either an event or simply unhappiness in being in a new school where he did not feel comfortable. As this was not your intention, it was not your fault. These transitions and minor traumas are part of life, and often prepare the teen for difficulties that are bound to occur in life. On the other hand if you do suspect that something horrible happened to him, you should ask him about it in a letter or in person. Otherwise let it pass.
Not a perfect parent?
No parent is perfect. As long as a parent provides love, consistency, and has reasonable expectations and consequences, the parent is doing a good job. No parent can satisfy a child’s every need, nor would it be the healthiest way to prepare a child for life. It is through one’s parents’ small failures and mistakes that a child learns to survive challenges.
A theory developed by Winnecott and called “good-enough mothering” (or good-enough parenting) shows that it’s better to be a pretty good parent with flaws than a “perfect parent” who anticipates every need of the child. It is the omissions and small mistakes of the parent that enable a child to gradually develop resiliency. Of course, abuse and great neglect do not fit into this category of “good-enough.”
Children criticize where it hurts – beware of your vulnerabilities
Ironically, children often criticize their parents for having the very qualities that the parents try hardest to avoid having. Better than anyone, children know their parents’ vulnerabilities. For example, if a child senses that a parent would hate to be seen as “rude”, then the child is likely to say to the parent that he or she is rude, even though the parent is indeed the otherwise. The child unconsciously knows the parent’s vulnerabilities and triggers and will exploit them in certain situations.
Thus, your son’s criticism of you for not taking his problems seriously enough may simply be his way of getting your attention because he unconsciously knows it will hurt you. Or he may simply be projecting his own inability to deal with his problems onto you.
On the other hand, if his criticism is apt, it’s not too late to take his problems more seriously.
When your son visits,
1. Be polite,
2. Show you’re happy to see him, but don’t idolize him or make him the center of all your attention,
3. Let him approach you,
3. Don’t ask too many questions if he’s sensitive to intrusive questioning,
4. Try not to make any judgments,
5. Try not to give advice,
6. Try not to be reactive when he discusses anything about his life,
7. Don’t lay any guilt trips “you’re seeing your friends again instead of having dinner with us!”
8. When he criticizes you, don’t get defensive; simply say, “I’m sorry you’re hurt, but unfortunately I’m not perfect. But you know I’m on your side and want what’s best for you.”
9. When he leaves, tell him how much his visit has meant to you ,
10. Try to do something interesting or fun together. You could say, “it would mean a lot to me if you go (skiing/on a hike/to a museum) with me while you visit, perhaps on Thursday.” “I’d love to go …. with you during your visit, perhaps ….”
I predict that as he matures and becomes more self-confident, he will become more appreciative of and comfortable around you and desire a deeper connection with you. However, you have to accept the natural loss of the close connection you once had when he was young. It is a fact of life that our children will grow up and will have their own lives independent of us – and that is a good thing.
Thus, I suggest that you let go of the hope to be as connected as you once were. I suggest enjoying his visits as much as possible, and letting him live his life while you focus on finding some things that you truly enjoy and are passionate about. Pursue your interests, enhance your relationships with your wife or partner if you have one, enhance your relationships with friends and the community. This will make you happier, and make you more appealing to your son, and a better role-model for him.
Write a letter to him
If it feels appropriate, you could write a letter, though not too long and detailed. Make sure you’re not judgmental, pleading, needy, demanding—anything that would cause him to feel guilty. For example,
I want you to know how much joy you’ve brought into my life and how much our relationship means to me. It’s probably healthy and normal for a you to live your own life and in so doing to distance yourself from us a bit. However, I feel quite saddened by the distance between us since you went into the 9th grade. It may be simply a healthy distance for a young adult, but it seems as if there is something else causing the distance, some hurt or disappointment on your part. Of course I am not a perfect parent, but I have always been on your side and tried my best.
I dearly hope that you can forgive any hurt I have inadvertently caused you, and that over time we can become closer, as you mean the world to me.”
Good luck. Let me know how it goes.
Read “Good-enough Parenting: ‘I feel so bad when I let my children down.’”
Read “I worry a lot over my adult children and I often call them to give advice.”