Let me tell you today about a mom who is trying to discover who she is - while living with a teenage son who has a pretty clear idea of who she is, and isn't happy with it. Somewhere under their struggle I found an unexpected but beautiful harmony.
Like most people, the woman who called me this night took a while to get to what was bothering her. She said she was feeling frustrated, she was struggling with something, and she wanted a little help sorting things out and finding some clarity. She explained that after many years and after a divorce, she was finally learning to set boundaries and not just go along with what everyone else wanted from her.
Five minutes in, she she mentioned something offhand that felt important to talk about. Mother and son were fighting a lot. I got the impression that there was a lot of yelling going on there. He was in his teens, and "He's just beginning to realise that he is a lot like his father, and he really doesn't like that."
She then said all the right things for a modern mom. "We talk a lot," and "He's really knows how to express himself, he communicates a lot," and "We tell each other also the scary things about ourselves, like what we're scared of." It sounds like she's on top of things, especially when she says "I want us to talk and I want him to tell me things, I just draw the line at aggression and violence. That's not how talking works." All very reasonable, and you'd think we've just got a grumpy teenager here. "He says he's not actually angry at me," mom tells me, "so he's just taking his frustrations out on me. But we do talk about that. And he tells me when he's upset with something I do, and then I say "Yes, I hear that you experience it like that. I hear that that's what you think."
Back up, red flag. Something about the way she said it. It came across a lot like "Yeah, somewhere in your misguided brain you're perceiving that, I don't know where you got that ridiculous notion but I see that you have it, and it's clearly wrong because it doesn't match my experience of the situation." I asked some questions, got some perspective, and it turned out, that really was pretty much how she felt. Her experience and perception of the situation were right, and when he tried to communicate what he felt and what he wanted, she said "I see that you experience that crazy thing and you're wrong." This happens a lot. People use all the right words, all the terms that they learned are "good behaviour", to cover up and justify controlling and really quite nasty behaviour much like I discussed in this article.
Her son had left tonight, mom told me, presumably to his father. "He's got every right to," she said huffy, "if that's what he wants." She tells me she's been feeling very emotional the last few days, and has been a little withdrawn on purpose. Not just from her son, also from her other two kids. She's just been feeling really quiet, like she needs some space, and she's not sure why. There's feelings of sad, and lonely, and just contemplative. Her son asked her why she was being so cold towards him these past few days. So she told him, "All this anger is really hurting me. I'm taking my distance from you for a while."
Oh no you didn't. I decided to call her out on it. You can't address a problem you're not aware exists. "Look," I interrupted her. "What you just told him, is that your life is horrible and so painful and you are suffering every day and that it is his fault. And that now you are rejecting him and don't want anything to do with him, because he's made his poor mother hurt so badly. He's a terrible son (just like his terrible father who you divorced), you're a suffering victim and you're totally justified in ignoring him and freezing him out, making him feel like his mother doesn't want him." Yikes. Those hadn't been her exact words, but it was what she'd said, what she'd felt and how she'd meant it. And from what I could tell, it was also what her son heard. Of course he left, what else was he going to do?
I tried to show her that what she told me (I'm feeling quiet, contemplative, like I need space, not sure why) and what she told her son (You're the cause of me feeling bad, I'm avoiding you) were two very different things. That clearly, what she told her son wasn't actually what was going on. She thought she was telling him how she felt, but she wasn't. She told me how she felt - she told her kid something abusive. When all he did was ask, without being aggressive, why she was suddenly cold to him and withholding affection.
What was going on here, was actually a really beautiful parallel. Mom was at a point in her life where she was learning to stop accepting abusive behaviour and to start expressing who she really is. Even when it's scary, even when she doesn't always know who she is either, even when she's scared of being rejected when she tries. And her son, being a teenager, was at much the same place. He was figuring out who he was outside the scope of both his parents, learning to express what he felt, and communicate that it was painful when someone was cruel to him. Thing is, if you're in a process to stop accepting abusive behaviour ... you kind of automatically are in a process to stop dishing out abusive behaviour, too. They go together. Mom and son were fighting because she kept dishing it out at him, as though he were his father (or her father), while at the same time requiring him to be fully supportive and accepting of all her whims. She wanted him to take responsibility for how she felt, while she wouldn't take any for herself, nor look at her part in the home she was creating for her kid. From where I'm standing, her son was showing much more maturity and grace in this learning proces than his mother.
The best approach I could see here, was to encourage more real and sincere communication between them and to break the patterns of abusive communication on her end. While, perhaps, making her aware that she was harming her child. I referenced her to Saying what's real: 7 keys to authentic communication by Susan Campbell (free on google books), the best reference I've found on the topic so far. It's simple, takes little time, no money, and is very effective. It's learning to say "When you were 5 minutes late, I felt scared and worried," instead of "You're late again, we talked about this, you don't care about me at all, you asshole!" It's a start of real communication, checking what you're actually feeling before you respond, communicating what's there, in response to what actually happened, and then actually listening to what's going on in the other. You'll feel a bit sheepish at first using these phrases, but they do work.
I'm hoping these two will sort it out. If they do, this can be the beginning of a really close and mutually supportive relationship between two adults mother and son, getting to know themselves and each other.