Validating Children’s Feelings

Q:We are writing about our 29-year-old son who is married and has three children. He was always quiet, shy and somewhat reserved. But we have always loved him just as much as all of our other children.

Recently, he opened up about resentments toward us which he has apparently been harboring for quite some time. He said he always felt we did not love him. And he complained that we have mistreated him.  We were shocked, to say the least. And we asked how we could resolve this matter. He said he wanted us to come with him for “family therapy,” which we agreed to do and to pay for.

In the therapist’s office, our son has gone into more detail about things we did, didn’t do, said and didn’t say to him. He is dredging up old conversations and stories from his childhood which we really do not remember. And in spite of all the money we are paying for these sessions, he keeps complaining that we don’t “understand how he feels.”

How would you recommend we handle all of this?

A:First, let me congratulate you and your spouse for agreeing to finance and participate in family therapy with your son. Not all parents would be as generous as you have been with their time and money. In addition, some parents feel threatened by meeting with a therapist. They erroneously fear they will be judged by the therapist, or criticized for past parenting errors.

One of the goals of family therapy is to facilitate more effective communication between family members.It provides an opportunity for everyone to express his or her feelings and to be heard. Many times people say the same things they have been trying to say for years but never succeeded in getting their message across. In the safe setting of the therapist’s office, however, they often feel heard for the very first time.

Your son claims that he was mistreated. I have no way of knowing whether or not there is any validity to those accusations. He also complains that you do not understand him. From your letter, however, there may be evidence as to why he might be feeling that way.  Let me explain.

You write that you do not remember the incidents your son describes in the family therapy. Suppose you were to make a comment like that during a session. Your son could feel that you were invalidating his feelings. It could appear that you were more interested in exonerating yourself than understanding him. Saying, “I don’t remember,” could imply, “Maybe it never really happened. And if it never happened, then I did nothing wrong. I am totally innocent.”

Furthermore, it could also suggest that you are the arbiter of his feelings. In other words, if you judge that his feelings are legitimate, then they are. But if you decide his feelings are invalid, then they do not need to be taken seriously. If, however, your son’s feelings are legitimate because that is how he feels, then it would be irrelevant whether or not you recall the episodes in question.

I recall a family therapy session which I conducted some time ago where an adult child lodged a similar complaint to her father. The father made a joke and was dismissive towards his daughter. At the next session, the father apologized for his behavior the previous week. “I was going to call you,” he said. “But then I decided to wait until today to tell you in person.” He then went on to acknowledge to his visibly shocked daughter that he realized after the previous week’s session how hurtful and disrespectful his disqualifying manner must have been.

In Parashas Vayeishev, the Torah relates how Yehudah had condemned Tamar to death. As she was being led to her own execution, she sent a messenger to Yehudah with some of his personal items and the question, “To whom do these belong?” Yehuda recognized the articles and publicly admitted his wrongdoing by declaring, “She is more righteous than I am.” (Bereishis 38:26) Upon witnessing Yehudah’s public confession, Reuven stood up and acknowledged his own wrongdoing when he had moved his father’s bed. (Bereishis 35:22) Much later, when Yehudah’s bones were unsettled as they were being transported to Eretz Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu davened for Yehudah saying, “Who was responsible for Reuven’s admission? [It was] Yehudah!” (Sota 7)

Just as Yehudah’s confession encouraged Reuven to do likewise, perhaps the example set by my patient will enable you to acknowledge any disregard you may have shown to your son’s feelings. And if you have been dismissive of his complaints, in any way, I hope you will have the strength of character to apologize. It will do wonders for reconciling your relationship.

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