My 14-year-old son is supposed to spend three weeks with me every summer but he is angry because I had to cancel a trip to see him not long ago. Now he is refusing to come for his summer stay. I only see him once a month (we live almost five hours apart). I don't want to make him more angry by forcing him to come here. What should I do?
Your son is sending you a message about his sadness, even if is being delivered with anger and withdrawal. How you respond will either help him grow into a man who can feel difficult emotions and communicate them in healthy ways, or someone who represses painful feelings and withdraws his love when he has been hurt. In other words, you have a tremendous opportunity right now to help your teenage boy learn how to manage life's inevitable disappointments. Here are my thoughts:
• Acknowledge your son's hurt feelings without defending yourself. I know it's tempting to dismiss his upset about your having skipped a visit, rationalizing it with whatever prevented you from being able to see him. I'm sure your reasons make sense. But your son was looking forward to seeing you, and disappointed when you couldn't come. Let him know that you understand -- without following it up with any justification.
I know I let you down when I couldn't make it last month. I know you're mad and hurt about that. We don't get to see each other much as it is, so skipping that visit was really hard on you. I'm sorry. I get it, and I'm sorry.
Notice that I am not encouraging you to explain or justify why you couldn't make it. When he feels heard, he may be open to your explanations, but until then, hearing why you weren't able to visit won't do anything to help him feel better. Simply acknowledge what you think he's feeling by saying things you believe he will respond to with a "Yes, you got that right..."
• Apologize. While saying I get it and I'm sorry is a start, there is more you can do to move this forward. In my mind, an apology has five parts:
- 1. I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I didn't make it last month to see you.
- 2. Acknowledge feelings. I imagine you felt really disappointed/ sad/ angry/ confused/ hurt.
- 3. Ask for forgiveness. I hope you can forgive me, and understand that it may take you some time to get over being mad.
- 4. Ask what he needs. Is there anything you need from me that will help you feel better? Do you want me to explain what happened? Hear you out?
- 5. Announce your intention to avoid the problem in the future. If I having car trouble (or I'm sick, or I have to work), I'm going to do all I can to reschedule our time for the following weekend. If you can't make it, we'll plan a long Skype hangout. I don't want to skip our time together; it means the world to me.
Your son has a right to his feelings and needs to know that he can safely express them to you. By demonstrating your commitment to hearing him out without becoming angry or defensive, you will give him the gift of modeling how an emotionally healthy man stays in conversation with those he loves when the relationship hits a rocky patch.
My guess is that if you follow these steps and "announce" your commitment to stay lovingly connected, he will soften and remember how much he wants to be with you this summer. Handle him with care, and let him feel not your demands that he comply with custody rules, but your genuine love and affection for him.
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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter at ParentingWithoutPowerStruggles.com.