Dear Dr. Sadaqat Ali,
I have a twenty-one years old son. He has drifted in and out of college classes and lacks direction and ambition. He spends most of his time hanging out with friends. We are two completely different personalities, I am very organized, serious, and high-strung. He is very laid-back, social, and unconcerned with his future. My goal is to see him be self-supporting. Although after every conversation he says he wants to be a successful businessman and live on his own, I do not see him making any efforts towards that goal. Sometimes I look at the possibility of holding a breakthrough negotiation, but now I wonder if it’s really worth it? I know that he isn’t likely to change and that he may become upset with me, so is it appropriate to remain silent.
Please help me in helping him to move forward with his life.
Dear Perplexed mother,
Silence may be an appropriate course of action when stakes are not high, emotions are not strong or there are no conflicting opinions. But this isn’t your current situation. We talk to our friends and families, ask for things we need and surf the Internet to find out what is happening around us. But when it comes to crucial matters we rarely seek productive guidance. Communication is something most of us take for granted. The other problem is the illusion that we have done already our best. Silence is a complicated choice and one should be careful about it. When you find that your motive is unhealthy, negative emotions are in control, you lack respect for someone or you don’t feel safe, it may be okay to move to silence temporarily. However, be careful not to use this “break” as an excuse to sweep the problem under the rug. Taking an hour to deliberate, connecting to a healthy motive, and finding a way to respect the other person can make a big difference. Starting a dialogue with the same person in safe place is essential. And sooner, the better.
You have already spoken with your son about general goals, direction, and aspirations. That half of the breakthrough negotiation has gone fine. You have concluded that he has some vague ideas about what he wants. But they sound more like fantasies than plans. You also need to hold the other half of the negotiation. You’ve shown a sincere interest in his life. But actually you have asserted your own interests. Such as, you want him to make progress. You want him to be self reliant. And—if you’re like many parents—you’d like him to move on to the next phase of his life. But setting goals with mutual agreement and holding him accountable on daily basis is your next move. This is a very delicate step and needs well learned communication skills.
Usually parents fail in their negotiations with their children, not because they don’t have a right to intervene in their life, actually they lack the skills to do so. On the other hand, therapists have skills but they sometimes fail because they don’t have the right to speak with an unwilling teenager. But when parents and therapists join hands miraculous results follow with indirect counseling in which the therapist works on the client and in turn the client works on the identified “patient”. When I see couples or families in therapy, improving communication leads to a breakthrough. Most people are convinced that they are good communicator already. I will suggest you to come out of this trap and start leaning the assertiveness. Being assertive means knowing the fine line. It means having a strong sense of yourself with full attention to mindfulness. Acknowledge that you deserve to get what you want. It helps to stand up for yourself even in the most difficult situations. But you should be aware about the boundaries between human beings, they way you see them amongst the neighboring countries.