Q:We have a 19-year-old son who has been learning at an out-of-town yeshivah since shortly after his bar mitzvah. Whenever we talk to him over the phone (which we try to do at least once or twice a week) he usually gives one-word answers to our questions. If we try to ask follow-up questions, he tells us he has to go. When he comes home for bein hazmanim, it is not much better. He does not seem comfortable to share his feelings with us about anything.
We know from reading your column regularly that you make a big deal about sudden changes in mood or behavior. … But this is not a sudden change. While it has gotten a bit worse over the last couple of years, this is how he has always dealt with us. He has never been a very emotionally expressive child.
What can we do to encourage this child to be more open with us about his feelings?
A:As has been stated here previously, each child is born with his own unique personality traits. It is not the task of a parent to break a child’s innate nature. Nevertheless, parents can and should try to bring out the best in each child. So while your son may never become the most emotionally expressive one in the room, there are steps you can take to help him to communicate more fully.
As Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, declared, “Just as water reflects the face [of the person looking into it], so too the heart of [one] man [reflects the mood and feelings] of [the other] man.” (Mishlei 29:19) This passuk articulates a fundamental principle of human nature which is that people usually mirror the manner in which they are treated by others.
Applying this to your dilemma, you can teach your son to be more emotionally expressive by making sure that you are setting a good example. More specifically, you should deliberately share your feelings with him, in general, and toward him, in particular.
Instead of asking how he feels, which may threaten him and put him on the defensive, tell him how you are feeling. Do not simply recount the events of your lives. Rather, use descriptive language to communicate your own emotions to him. Do not fabricate feelings, however. And be sure to be fully honest and sincere. Instead of asking questions, share things like, “I really miss you when you are away.” Or, “I can’t wait until you come home, again.” Or, “I’m so curious about how you are getting on with your roommates.” You can also say what about him makes you proud, what you admire about him the most, and whatever he said or did which you especially appreciate.
By speaking to him in this fashion, you achieve a number of goals simultaneously. You expand his feelings vocabulary. You teach him how to express emotions verbally. And you send him the message that feelings are an important part of communication in a relationship.
I learned this lesson many years ago when I was a professor in graduate school. I taught two sections of the same course, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. As the year progressed, I noticed that the afternoon class was more dynamic. The students were more invested, participated more actively in classroom discussion and shared more personal experiences. By contrast, the morning classes were stiff, dull and boring, even though we dealt with the same subject matter.
My colleagues on the faculty were all very supportive. “The same thing happens to us, sometimes,” they said. “It just has to do with the make-up of each class.”
The next year, the situation repeated itself. Again I consulted colleagues. And again they were supportive. “It has to do with the timing of the classes, sometimes. We all experience the same thing.” If they were correct, however, it would have been the morning classes which were more enthusiastic. And that was not the case. When the phenomenon repeated itself for the third year in a row, however, even I could not deny that the difference between classes had something to do with me.
That summer I did some serious soul searching because, as a result of a drop in the school’s enrollment, I would be teaching only one class that fall, the morning one. I realized that I had been more relaxed in the afternoon classes, which caused me to be more open with my students. And this had created an atmosphere in the class which encouraged the students to risk being open with each other. Using this insight, I succeeded in turning that one morning session into an “afternoon” experience. And you can have similar results with your son.