A while back, I conducted an initial therapy session with a family: Mom, Dad and sixteen-year-old son. Let’s call him James. Mom and son sat on the couch, dad on an adjacent chair. The presenting issue was the son’s disrespect at home, and failure to engage fully at school. I always start by asking, “Why are we here?”
Mom answered. Mom almost always answers. She was kind and thoughtful, and expressed concern about her son’s well-being.
Dad sat by stoically, arms crossed, anger apparent. When prompted, he turned to me. He suggested, in short, staccato statements:
“He has no respect.”
“He doesn’t care about anything but himself.”
“He’s a capable boy, but such a disappointment.”
“He doesn’t tell us anything.”
“If I talked to my father the way he talks to his mother and I, he would have killed me.”
“He came down and told us he was depressed. Depressed about what? We have a great house. I break my back to put him in the best schools. We’ve given him a perfect life. Depressed! Give me a break.”
As I tend to do, I dismissed Mom and Dad, and spent some time with James alone. And my hand to God, as the door closed behind Dad, James burst into tears.
“I hate that guy. I fucking hate him.”
A couple of truths quickly became apparent to me. First, James does behave disrespectfully. He does underperform. Dad wasn’t wrong.
But he missed the whole point.
James told me his dad just doesn’t know him, and doesn’t care to know him. It’s evident this breaks James’ heart.
James started telling me about himself, his interests. He secretly records music, raps and beats, on his phone. He played a few for me. He’s way into that.
He really likes this one girl, but has no remote idea how to get started, initiate contact.
James is crazy funny. And smart. And deep and observant.
And yeah, he’s pretty depressed.
James kept talking until our time was nearly up. It was a privilege to get to know him. Once he started talking, he gained my respect, and interest, and empathy. It was fun to talk with James, even a pretty depressed James.
And as you might guess, I can say that about every child I have ever worked with.
As for the father-child relationship, I know James will be okay, with or without Dad. I’ve been doing this gig for a while.
No, my deeper concern is almost always for Dad.
Think about James. I got to know him, in half an hour, better than his dad knows him.
What a ripoff for them both.
We men, we have a way of summarily cutting the joy out of our lives. We are stingy with our love, and precious little of it flows back to us. The same goes for our time.
Most of us were taught this presentation by our fathers. Maybe it worked then, in some ways.
But it doesn’t work now. Not for our kids like James, to be sure.
But guys, we suffer too.
We don’t tend very well to our emotional well-being, and this affects every part of our lives: our work, our relationships, our health, our feelings about ourselves, our sense of joy, and our sense of hope.
My fear is that we miss it, all the good stuff, in the name of manhood. I see it far too often. And with a little shift, I sincerely believe we can make ourselves more emotionally available to our people, to our lives, and to ourselves.
I can’t think of any more important work we can do right now.
Learn more about Dr. John Duffy at https://drjohnduffy.com.