Achieving Fluency in the Language of Feelings

Q:My children are all married and out of the house. Recently, it got back to me (through my wife) that some of my children felt while growing up (and still feel today) that I have not been warm enough towards them. They complained that I have always been too distant and often critical. One of my sons cited the following example. He informed both of us (separately) that he has taken up jogging. When he told me, I said, “Oh,” acknowledging the news. When my wife heard, she responded, “How wonderful! That’s great!”

My wife agrees with my children (but not in front of them). And she claims that I need to learn how to be more warm and nurturing towards them. To be honest, I believe there is some truth in their assessment of me. I find that I can be warm and nurturing to young children (my grandchildren and my own when they were younger). But I find it more difficult to be that way with adult children. I can see how this would improve my relationship with them. But I’m not sure how to go about this. When I asked my wife for practical suggestions, all she could come up with was that I should write to you. What advice can you give me?

 

A:Your non-defensiveness is breathtaking. Many parents, especially fathers, share your detached and emotionally reserved personality. But very few of them have your self-confidence to admit this deficit to themselves and/or their spouses. I applaud your honesty and your courage to reach out for help.

You are not alone. Most parents find it much easier to nurture their young children than to display warmth to children who are older. And when children become adults who are married, it becomes even more difficult. Nevertheless, there are steps you can take even then to reverse the course of alienation you are on with your adult children.

The first thing you need to do is invert your ratio of compliments to complaints. As Chazal have advised, “Always push away [i.e., criticize] with the left [i.e., weaker force] and bring close [i.e., praise] with the right [i.e., the stronger force]” (Sotah 47a). And the best way to accomplish that is to think of any relationship as a bank account.

For example, one can make many withdrawals from an account without difficulty as long as there are sufficient funds in the account to cover the withdrawals. Once the withdrawals exceed the balance, however, the account is automatically closed. In order to prevent that undesired consequence, one must always be sure to make enough deposits to cover future withdrawals.

A relationship works the same way. If there have been many compliments and much praise offered in the past, a current criticism will be easily tolerated. If, however, expressions of approval have been few and far between, then even a mild rebuke will be seen as excessive. When speaking to your children in person or just over the phone, therefore, make sure you are voicing more approval than disapproval.

A second thing you can do is to be more attentive to the emotional content of your children’s communication with you. Pick up on and inquire about their feelings and reactions to whatever they are discussing with you. For example, if they report a problem, frustration or dilemma, do not suggest a solution or way to fix the problem right away. First, ask for more details of how they are affected. Take interest in their emotional experience of the situation. Only afterwards, if they ask for them, should you suggest solutions.

We have an excellent example of this emotional sensitivity in the Torah. Yosef Hatzaddik picked up on the altered emotional state of Pharaoh’s Chief Baker and Butler when he said, “Why are your faces downcast today?” (Bereishis 40:7). And from this seemingly insignificant inquiry, Yosef’s miraculous deliverance from prison ensued two years later. This comes to teach us how important it is to be attuned to the emotional states of other people, in general. When dealing with family members such as children, however, it is even more crucial to the development of close, warm relationships.

From your letter, it is clear that you are fluent in English. How did you learn English? If you answer, “Because you heard it growing up,” you would be wrong. The correct answer is because it was the language spoken to you. Similarly, if you are not fluent in the language of feelings, it is probably because neither of your parents picked up on and valued your feelings. If so, then it is understandable why this is so difficult for you today. And it is all the more reason that you deserve credit for undertaking this ambitious project of self-improvement.


 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.