The media is focusing yet again on Tommy Jordan, the North Carolinan dad who gained notoriety for having posted a video on YouTube of himself berating his teenage daughter for her bad attitude, culminating with him firing bullets into his daughter's laptop. Clearly, Jordan's clip struck a nerve with parents across the country, 73 percent of whom NBC's "Today" reports agreed with his actions. During his appearance on the Today show, he seemed slightly subdued, but made sure we knew that the vast majority of the 30 million people who watched the video were in favor of his methods.
As a therapist, I can't think of a parent I've worked with who wouldn't love to shoot holes through their teen's laptop, cell phone or video game system, if not throw said item over a cliff after first pounding it to pieces with a mallet. While I think that Internet-accessing tools have much to offer, I also see these devices like a heroin drip for many kids, and have serious concerns with how how parents are handling -- or mishandling -- the runaway train called Digital Media.
But underneath Jordan's words was a seething anger. And whenever a parent attempts to solve an ongoing parenting issue with vengeance or retaliation they ultimately create more -- and more significant -- problems. While I understand parents vicariously taking pleasure in this Dad's actions, few are considering the larger impact that posting his video will have on his daughter Hannah Marie and their relationship. On the Today show, Hannah Marie suggested that after the video hit, they "went [their] separate ways for a little while...," going on to suggest that they later laughed about it. I'd like to believe that's true, but I have my doubts that this event has been reduced to a funny family story.
If there's one thing I have learned after counseling families for over three decades it's this: Overpowering a youngster with severe punishments, threats or humiliation in an attempt to regain a sense of parental control always backfires.
Here are the questions I would invite readers to ask:
- Why did 15-year old Hannah post that awful letter to her parents on her Facebook page in the first place?
- Is there a chance that Hannah tried to talk with her parents about her frustrations and they simply told her to zip it?
- Do Hannah's parents encourage their daughter to offload her upsets with them in a way that reassures her that when she's dealing with problems with friends or school, they will offer guidance without criticizing or judging her? Or do they just tell her to stop complaining because she doesn't know how lucky she is?
- Does Jordan have any idea how to come alongside his daughter when he thinks she's being ungrateful, rather than at her in a shaming way that compares her life today -- with its many comforts -- with his own childhood?
- Does Jordan spill other resentments and stressors from his life onto his daughter, using her as an outlet for other frustrations?
- Biggest question: Does anyone in this family listen to one another? Or is the communication system built upon shutting one another up whenever anyone has something to say that the other disagrees with?
Parenting is ridiculously hard work. We do thousands of things every day for our children, most of which go unnoticed and unappreciated. By the time our kids are fifteen, it's entirely reasonable to require them to help out around the house, and offer us at least a modicum of thanks now and then for all we do on their behalf. I understand Jordan's predicament, and empathize with the buildup of feeling that pushed him to do what he did.
But kids need parents to be what I call the Captain of the Ship in their lives, helping them navigate both the calm and rough waters of life. We were all outraged when the Italian Captain of the Costa Concordia purportedly jumped ship after it smashed into rocks. The Captain is the one who's supposed to stay onboard till the bitter end, confidently handling whatever storm or iceberg his ship sails so passengers know that their Captain can see them through whatever crisis they may encounter.
When our kids see us “jumping ship” because of their misbehavior, they get the clear message that there is no Captain. This absence creates an even greater dependence on peers, more reliance on digital devices like Facebook and texting, all to fill that primal need to feel connected.
I can only hope that the Jordan family isn't irrevocably fractured by these events. Despite being a therapist, I don't think every family issue requires professional counseling to find resolution. But in this case, it's hard to imagine the Jordans not needing a skilled third party to cut through the desperate measures that father and daughter have taken in an attempt to be heard. And in the absence of doing just that -- hearing the hurt, pain and frustration underneath these public displays -- there will either be more rocks flung in one another's direction, or an impenetrable wall erected between them.