What are your worst Fatherhood nightmares? I’ll share my top three. First, I cringe at the thought of a call from an ER doctor informing me my son has been in an accident. Second, my stomach turns (and blood boils) when I imagine one of my sons calling from police headquarters due to an arrest. These are two nightmares of the highest order, for me. My third is equally gut wrenching, but is the one I have some control over. Accidents happen, and kids make poor choices, but, as bad as both outcomes are, they aren’t totally my doing. Distance between me and my child is my responsibility, and that offers hope.
Distance. Disgust. Disdain. Those words first come to mind when I think of a nightmare scenario in which my son and I can’t relate to each other. If we can’t talk, if he doesn’t want to talk, or if all we do is argue then we aren’t experiencing my dream of a father-son team and I feel like a failure. As a father and as a counselor, I’ve heard dozens of men, tears in their eyes, share how much they desperately wish for a close relationship with their son, but just can’t seem to make it happen. They know they are drifting apart, but feel powerless to turn the tide in their son’s heart. It’s like one of those bad dreams we’ve all had where we can’t run fast enough, keep stumbling, or feel stuck in the face of danger. These men are caught in a powerful riptide, unable to paddle hard enough to reach their boy drifting out to sea. Almost to a man, they ask, “Can this be fixed? Can we ever be close?” I have encouraging and hopeful news for them: There is a way to turn the tide!”
After prayer, find some place alone with your son and prepare yourself to listen. For ninety percent of the next few minutes together you should be in listen-mode. You’ll then begin with a statement and follow with a question. Don’t make this an interrogation; keep it a humble inquiry. Begin with, “Son, I love you, and I want to hear from you. I want to listen to what’s in your heart because I want to do a better job of being your dad. I’ve made some mistakes, and I want to change those.” Even if you’ve said or show it a thousand times, do it again. This lets him know it is safe to answer your question with candid honesty. Now, ask this important question, “I’d like to know anyway or ways I have disappointed or hurt you in the past. Can you tell me any that come to mind? It is okay to tell me, I want to hear. Take your time.”
Listen to him. If he doesn’t have anything to say, it may actually be telling you, “I don’t know how to connect with my feelings.” In fact, his hesitation may actually be shouting the message, “I don’t trust you or feel safe telling you what I really think.” Give him time. He didn’t set up this conversation, you did. If he’s caught off-guard, it is okay. YOU communicate your heart to him through the empathetic tone in your voice and patiently assuring him, “It’s okay if you can’t think of anything right now. You can tell me later, or you can write it in a note if you like. I just want to open the door for us. I’ll be ready to talk when you are. I just want to be a better dad for you.” LISTENING and PRESENCE are your goals….not him speaking a response. Giving him space and assuring him you are open anytime, cover a LOT of emotional ground and make healing a real possibility.
Accept responsibility and ask for forgiveness. Apologize man! If the boy says something you did, didn’t do, said to him, or said about him that stung his heart, then accept responsibility for your actions. Sure, kids are kids and they misunderstand things. You may have been misunderstood and probably were, but still, it hurt him. The point is that your son was hurt. Respond to his pain, don’t explain it. “Son, thank you for telling me. I can tell this hurt you deeply. I’m so sorry for that. I don’t want you to hurt. Can you forgive me?” After asking for forgiveness, wait for his reply. If he can’t forgive you at that moment, IT IS OKAY! Give him some room, some time to process. Just do your part. You are responsible for asking for, not for obtaining, forgiveness. Assure him, “It’s okay. Take some time. I’m just sorry I hurt you.”
Guard against two common missteps that derail the whole thing!
Avoid explaining yourself, “Oh! It wasn’t that way at all! You see, I actually did XYZ because……”; “I really wanted to be at your game, but I got a call just as I was…..” These KILL his will to open himself to you. In fact, they strengthen the riptide between you. Remain focused on hearing his pain and making your apology.
Don’t dismiss his feelings, “Son, don’t feel that way because…..”; “Well, I don’t think that’s the way you should feel about ….” Face it, Dad! Your son (works for daughters too) feels hurt, angry, distant, forsaken, alone, and afraid. He senses you don’t care, he is unloved, or that he can’t measure up. Accepting this assures him that you hear him and care about his side of things. This is deeply powerful.
Affirming your commitment to an improved relationship, valuing his perspective, and making amends for how you’ve affected him emotionally allow you to step out of the current that’s drowning your relationship. So Dad, prayerfully, humbly, and immediately take these steps to awaken the connection between you and your son. It is in your power to begin the end of this terrible nightmare and patiently turn it into a dream.