Sandra A Doron LCSW
After reading your letter about relationships between mothers and adult daughters, I would like to share my concern about my adult son. He lives with his girlfriend, and I see very little of him. I want to see and talk with him more often, but I am afraid that if I express my disappointment, it will boomerang and could make matters worse. I feel I have to walk on eggshells with him. Where-Has-My-Son-Gone?
Wow! You have raised a universal issue that is familiar to most mothers with adult sons. Thank you so much for writing to me, so that I can identify some of the issues that make it so much more difficult to talk with our sons than with our daughters. Our daughters usually feel comfortable with “talking” and sharing their most intimate feelings and experiences. However, as many mothers know, sons have a much harder time talking about their feelings.
The primary task of adolescence is to establish a separate identity and many boys begin this process by “rejecting” (usually temporarily) their mothers. Boys can feel ashamed of the closeness and love they feel towards their mothers. They often feel embarrassed to be seen with their mothers or to kiss their mothers. To be called a “mommy’s boy” is the greatest indignity of all. Mothers grow afraid of raising “sissies”, and so mothers and their adolescent sons withdraw from each other.
Though this is a normal part of the developmental process, not resolving it by early adulthood can have painful, even tragic consequences. In reality, we find that men who are truly close to women and other men are more secure in their identity and thus more masculine than men who are afraid of closeness and openness. Our adult sons who have a healthy and close relationship with their mothers usually make more loving and compassionate adult partners. The following recommendations for improved communication with your son may be helpful:
1. Be as specific as you can. Our sons use words in order to get things done, so requests such as “I’d love to meet with you every week” or: “I would appreciate your calling me every week.” convey language that our sons naturally understand, and focus on what needs to be done—in other words, on behavior, not on feelings. As you may have observed, our sons tune us out when we give a long explanation, or cushion a request with a lot of verbiage. In addition, suggesting that you do something together will probably lead to a more positive response than asking for a “chat.” If your son likes gardening or cooking, he may be willing to do it with you. These activities will likely generate more comfortable dialogue. Taking a walk together is often a good way to generate a meaningful, more intimate discussion.
2. Word your request positively, not negatively. Threats almost never work and almost always backfire. Your son may feel powerless, scared, or angry if he thinks he is giving in to you. “I feel terrific when you drop by and surprise me” is an example of a positive request.
3. Avoid rhetorical questions such as: “How could you possibly have forgotten?” or, “Why didn’t you come by when you said you would?” These questions imply incompetence; he is likely to feel attacked or criticized. Directing anger in a more clear and direct way is often more readily heard. “I am disappointed because this is the third time you said you were coming for dinner, and didn’t.” This comment addresses the specific behavior and not the person or character.
4. Brainstorm with your son for solutions. If he tells you that he has no time, ask him to suggest some alternative ways you could see him. Meeting you for lunch or dinner once a week near his work may be easier for him than coming to your home.
5. Make a list of topics that your son likes to talk about. Does he enjoy politics, religion, sports, computers? If so, you may want to read about these topics, and bring them up at an appropriate time. These topics are safe, and may lead to discussion of more personal issues.
Mothers need to be acknowledged and appreciated, just as their adult sons do. But receiving such acknowledgement from your son may not happen for some time. Give your son a lot of positive reinforcement for the wonderful things he does, and for the wonderful adult he has become. You do not mention your relationship with his girlfriend, but if you like her, he may be happy to speak to you about her—and you may want to call and see her from time to time. This would make her feel valued by you as a separate person, not only as your son’s girlfriend. Your son may respond positively, also, to this kind of effort and interest on your part.
To readers of this column who have a similar situation, I would welcome hearing from you.
Sandra A Doron is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker A & A Couples Counseling Acknowledge and Appreciate (Keys to a Successful Relationship)
This site was last updated 01/22/06