I am not much of a letter writing type of guy, but I will give it a shot. I have been hearing from my wife, and now from my son’s rebbe that I need to work more on developing a better relationship with my teenage son. It isn’t that we have a relationship, it’s that we just don’t seem to connect. I know I am not the most expressive person in the world and though that doesn’t seem to be a problem with my other kids, I guess this one needs it more. I have tried going out with him, spending time, but it is stilted and awkward. He is actually the one people say has the personality most like me, whereas my other kids are more like my wife who is louder and more relaxed than me. So, he is kind of a more reserved kid but is winding up becoming distant from me. It’s a shame I need an icebreaker for my own kid, but here we are. If you have some suggestions or ideas that could make things go smoother, I would greatly appreciate it.
It’s difficult for me to respond very specifically, since I don’t have much information about your son, his needs, or your relationship with him.
You mentioned that the importance of forging a stronger relationship with your son has been highlighted by others. It seems that this is not something that you noticed yourself. Is there a reason for this? Is it due to the nature of your relationship with him? Is this specific to your relationship with him or do you generally tend to be oblivious to social cues?
You discuss the fact that you’re not very expressive, and that it is stilted and awkward when you spend time with your son. I don’t know if this refers specifically to conversation, or if you mean this in a more general sense. Either way, I wonder whether your son feels the same way. You may be trying too hard to do the right thing, act the right way, and to properly “break the ice.” However, your son may simply want to spend time with you. He may not feel that your relationship (or conversation) is stilted and awkward. Even if he does, he may not care very much.
You could let your son know that if there is anything that he wants to discuss, you are there for him. If your son does want to have conversations with you, he may very well initiate these, in which case you would simply respond. However, it may not be conversation—or only conversation—that your son is looking for.
Although you seem to indicate that he may need a more “expressive” relationship with you than do your other kids, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he wants to have deep and meaningful conversations. Sometimes, what kids need is the sense that they are important to their parents. This can help them to develop a better internal sense of importance.
You mentioned that your son’s personality is most similar to yours. This might give you some clues as to what he needs, and can help to guide your responses. Can you remember how you felt at his age? What were your needs and insecurities? Even if you cannot recall, some of these may continue even to this day in similar (or possibly different) forms. What kind of relationship did you have with your father? What aspects of this relationship helped you? Are there things your father could have done to help you feel happier, more content, and self-confident? What did you look for in a relationship? What do you look for in a relationship today? Better understanding your own feelings may give you a clearer sense as to your son’s, which can lead you to better responses—as well as more confidence in your own abilities as a father.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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