Ask Allison: ‘I’d like to use this time to mend my relationship with my son – but how?’

By | March 31, 2020

Q Relations between my eldest son and myself have been really bad over the past 12 months. I am a single mother of three and my eldest is 18. Our house isn’t huge but he has his own room and is spending most of his time there. The younger two are enjoying all this extra time with me at home and I would like to use this time to mend my relationship with my eldest. Can you give me any tips on how to do this? Any time I try and draw him out he just shuts me out. I was thinking of writing him a letter. What do you think?

I’m assuming this is coronavirus- induced social distancing as you are all home a lot more. Without the background context I hope the following assumptions are helpful. In answer to your question, yes write a letter, the contents of which we can explore here. I’m curious about your other children’s ages and if they are boys and or girls? It can be easier for younger children to want to spend more time with their mother as much as it can be more of a struggle for an 18-year-old.

Since your son turned 17 you have been not getting on. I’m sure this is a common and deeply frustrating experience for many parents, made all the more difficult when you probably have to play disciplinarian first and mum after. It can be slightly less of a power struggle if the other children are younger.

Are there power struggles? Did a change happen with your son that left you feeling rejected by him? This isn’t talked about very often in an authentic way but it hurts when your own child lashes out against you as you are trying to create and maintain boundaries which he may be very unhappy about.

The following questions hope to nudge an empathy for yourself in terms of how hard it has been for you to keep pushing back against a possibly taller son, who is testing those boundaries emotionally. Without the support of a partner, this is all shouldered by you. Who can you talk to? Your son is pushing you away, which although it is natural, it can feel destructive and do a lot of damage as well. This, doesn’t make it any easier on you. When there is an emerging adult in the scrumming position constantly pushing boundaries against one parent, it is emotionally and physically draining.

Firstly, write a letter to yourself. Write out how you have been feeling. Pick emotive examples where words that were said smarted; or how angry and or dismissive looks cut you down. How was that for you? How did that make you feel? What was coming up for you? Anger, frustration, sadness, hurt, rejection? Did you feel worried and feel bad as a parent? Many parents internalise the external experiences and tensions that come from constant power struggles or conflict as a reflection upon themselves.

Sit with the feelings that might arise from this. Go at this with gentle kindness as you would to a friend struggling in the same way. Do the same to yourself. Write out any parenting fears. Step back from this and move from the intensity of those feelings to being a curious and kind observer of your own thoughts.

Did this open up any more space for you and the experiences of conflict? Bring compassion to the pain of the struggle for yourself and for any feelings of loss over the relationship that you had with your son.

Many parents have been saying their teenagers have been socially distant and have had their parents in social and emotional isolation well before the arrival of the very unwanted coronavirus.

The way back is through connection before correction. When was the last time you had a straightforward chat? One that checked in with him, one that asked what was going on with him with the emotional tone of really listening rather than waiting for your chance to pick up from where the last frustration left off. Turning toward someone you have been arguing with is really tough.

Next, write a letter from your son’s perspective. Take off your mom hat and step into his trainers. Try to remember the words or sentences you’ve heard from him a hundred times. Write them down. Having done this, how does it feel, did any insight come out of this thought experiment?

What are the arguments really about?

What can be done about this? Is there adaptable flexibility and generosity on both sides? There mightn’t be yet, but that could be a good place to start. Which form of communication might work best for him, would text work first, so he can respond back to you without the pressure to respond immediately?

A willingness to understand and step into his shoes can give a fresh perspective when the connection gets blocked by withdrawing to his room.

Gently offer a kind supportive desire from you to find a way back, even a bit of humour about being stuck in the house might offer an opening to repairing and building a new relationship and connection. It might be as simple as, “Fancy coming out tonight? We’re downstairs on the couch.”

If you have a query for these pages email Allison at allisonk@independent.ie

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