Mark has learned the basics of communication with Arian and how to look after his own ‘inner child’. He has faced his paralysing fear and brought movement back into his emotional life through some trauma-focused counselling sessions.
Inner healing releases energy for outer change
The car crash at the age of 17 that lead to the death of a friend left Mark with an intrinsic fear of losing control and, especially, of feeling profoundly helpless and trapped. He is now beginning to understand how much his brain has learnt to alert him to every situation that could lead him to lose control. Thus, the impact of the trauma spread into his relationships and his work life.
Now is the time when the healing of his own traumatic experiences begins to liberate some capacity in Mark. He has become more open and flexible to making changes to how he approaches and communicates with his son, James.
There is a deeper understanding that what James really needs from his dad is a strength and consistency that Mark has not been able to provide before.
Where to start when you want to open up a conversation versus reinforcing parental authority
Mark remembers some interactions with James along the way, which ended in arguments. For example, School performance has always been a difficult topic. Any time, Mark asks about school, James becomes defensive. Mark used to react with a raised voice, beginning to assert what he thought of as his right and authority toward his son. Mark knows that this always led to James shutting down even further and eventually walking away. Seldom would Mark be able to enquire without ending at the same impasse.
It wasn’t easy in the past either…
Mark reflects on these conversations and notices first his frustration and the immediate impulse to blame his son for being non-cooperative. He takes a breath and begins to think about what it was like for him when he was James’ age.
Life was confusing, overwhelming and exciting. There seemed to have been many opportunities out there, which were just outside his grasp. Others seemed to do ‘better’ or have their lives together in a way he did not. He now knows that was not the case, but everyone kept their struggles to themselves, so he did not know that. The aim was to be cool.
Parental skills are learned – so good ones as much as the bad ones
Even prior to his accident Mark remembers how the uncertainty and the lack of capacity to express what was going on within himself, made him a frustrated teenager. What was missing for him? He realises his father was the ‘absent person’ in the family: out there working, earning the money. Coming home being tired. Not a lot of words were spoken.
Mark wanted to do better than that. Having learned about his own ‘inner child’, and is now able to understand that the emotional reactions to James belong to himself. He is now ready to learn how to change the ever-arising impasse between them into a relational conversation.
This moment is a fundamental change for Mark: the burden of guilt and helplessness seems to have shifted as he allows a profound sense of acceptance to sweep over him.
In the week following this insight, the incident comes up in a dinner conversation with newly met friends. Mark is amazed to find he can talk about the experience without breaking into a sweat. He doesn’t feel the need to move over it quickly and change the topic. He also registers the lack of the familiar feelings of shame and guilt.
Following simple rules can make all the difference when creating connection
The following evening, Mark gives it another go: He asks James how school is going. James is his usual un-cooperative, defensive self: without looking up from his phone, he says ‘okay’. Mark notices his frustration arising immediately and has a good idea. He invites James to come along with him to pick up some items from the electric store in town. James agrees and Mark has managed to set up a situation that is less confronting as father and son drive into town together.
Mark remembers his counsellor’s most important tip: be curious! So, he begins to ask questions that are open-ended, non-judgemental. He keeps coming back to thinking about how he can help James express what is going on. This is much better than looking for the reason why James doesn’t respect his father.
Changes in communication: start small and build slowly!
During the 20-minute drive a slow conversation opens up between them. James responds to the curious tone in his father’s voice and shares some of his thoughts about his school experiences. Mark finds out things, he did not know and pays careful attention to not comment on these disclosures.
Instead he feeds them back to James in a neutral or open way: When James tells him about a teacher bursting into tears in class because no-one listens, Mark replies: ‘Ghee, so he actually walked out? And then?’ and: ’What was that like for you?’ Mark makes sure, he doesn’t judge the student’s behaviour nor talks about the teacher’s suffering. He doggedly stays with James’s own experience of this event.
When they come home an hour later, Mark knows he has made a good start to changing his connection to James. He notices the happiness within him: this is what they discussed in counselling about ‘relational experiences’. What matters is connection, empathy, curiosity. He can’t wait to share his experience with Arian and to begin to practice these skills with the rest of his family.
If you need some support in working out how to better communicate for connection, you can book a free 45-minute check-in-session with Mattie or Michelle now.