The challenge of fathering an adolescent son.
Fathering an adolescent son requires downsizing the dad.
Posted November 22, 2010
To continue this series about mothering and fathering adolescents, consider some thoughts about fathers and teenage sons.
Fathering a little son who wants nothing so much as to be "just like my dad" is much easier than fathering an adolescent son who wants to follow his own agenda and be his own man.
"Now that he's a teenager he doesn't want to do the father/son stuff we used to do with each other anymore," explains the man, saddened by the loss of companionship with his old buddy. "The things I love to do, that I taught him to enjoy, that we shared in common all those years, they are mostly gone. Now he's into activities that don't interest me so we don't have good ways to be together any more." This disconnection doesn't have to necessarily be so. The dad is missing the point.
It can be a hard for some fathers to adjust to the reversal of terms that needs to take place after a son turns adolescent (usually starting around ages 9 - 13) if they are to stay well connected during the remaining teenage years. When his son was younger, the little boy wanted to relate on terms that interested his father because being similar to his father created a sense of closeness to the man he wanted to imitate. For example, because the dad loved fishing, the son did too. When that boy became an adolescent, however, it became time to let go childish things and develop older, alternative interests to claim his individuality and independence.
Now fishing seems boring compared to skateboarding which is exciting. Instead of sitting still on a boat in the water waiting for fish to bite with his father, the teenager finds surfing urban streets and ramps and jumping curbs with skater friends more challenging to do. Plus the image of the urban sport, and how he dresses for it, has a renegade appeal. He carries his own wheels. Or suppose the son who grew up a fan of his father's Country music now comes to love Hip Hop instead, a more percussive kind of sound not suited to his father's taste.
To stay connected at this transition it's time for the father to bridge adolescent differences with interest and relate on terms that matter to his teenage son. This doesn't mean he has to buy a skateboard too. However, it does mean taking an active interest in his son's new interest, being curious to learn about it by being open to be taught. Now their traditional roles are reversed, as he becomes the student and his son the teacher, the young man feeling respected in this new instructional role.
The same holds true for musical differences that develop as the man listens to songs foreign to his ears, has their appeal patiently explained, and the artists described. Again, the teacher/student role is reversed, the father now looking to his son to explain what the young man's emerging world of experience is like. Even in conflict, the more often the father can treat his son as an informant, and the less often as an opponent, the better off their relationship will tend to be. So the man profits from disagreement by learning more about his son from the exchange.
An adolescent son growing into young manhood is often in a bind with his father, and it is this. The child son wants to glorify the man, but when he does, come time for adolescence, his dad has become such a hero figure there is no way the teenager can measure up to the exemplar he has worshipfully created.
So what is the adolescent to do? Some how, some way, he must cut his father down to human size, but in doing so he loses his ideal, even growing angry at his father for the loss. Now he finds grounds -- frailties and flaws and failings in his father -- to help diminish the man. Adolescent criticism goes to show his dad is not so perfect after all.
All fathers are destined to be a disappointment to their sons who must blame and finally forgive their dad for failing to perform up to a standard that was never meant to be. To further reduce the discrepency between them, the son can grow himself in ways his father never did, excelling at what his father did not or cannot do.
In this process of paternal downsizing, a father can help by admitting mistakes, apologizing for wrong doing, declaring his limitations and ignorance, and even putting his own efforts down in a humorous way. He can also upsize his son by complimenting the young man, pointing out what the teenager can do that the man cannot, recognizing his son's expertise by asking for the help of the young man's special strengths and skills.
Then there is father/son competition - power tests (which can be good) and power struggles (which can be bad.) Adolescent sons usually need to go up against their father to measure them selves against the man. Power tests of skills provide for safe competition; power struggles for control risk extreme measures that can result in injury. Start with power tests.
When competition is played out through friendly contests, the boy testing his skill and knowledge against the more experienced and competent man, the outcome can be beneficial to the relationship between boy and man. Coaching while they play, the father recognizes and praises the young man's growing skills, and takes pleasure when the son honestly prevails. "When you win, we both win," the man says.
Two criteria for healthy power tests are that the son gains competence and self-esteem, and the father/son relationship are strengthened from competition that never becomes so serious it ruins the fun of play. And they compete at what they each are better at -- so the man may challenge the son to a game of chess, and the son may challenge the dad to a computer game. In either case, the father must not turn a power test into a power struggle over male dominance.
Power struggles are another matter. When the issue becomes one of control over the son's life, over the choices he makes like friends or school achievement or future direction, the father may pit his way against his son's way. Now what matters most to the man is asserting his authority, proving that he is in charge, that he knows best, dominating at all costs, and getting his way. At this point, harsh tactics like intimidation, humiliation, and even punishing physical force can be employed by the man to show the son who is boss.
It's a contest firmly anchored in the male performance ethic as each refuses to back down. If the father is committed to win at all costs, when he wins, he risks losing on two counts. He may lose love in the relationship that injury from unbridled conflict has caused. And he may lose power through creating an isometric encounter with his son, the young man becoming stronger after each conflict by pushing full strength against his father's resistance, learning to act like his father, growing equally stubborn to match the man.
The most serious father/adolescent son conflicts I see in counseling are when the father pushes his agenda of resemblance ("My way is the right way") so hard that the teenage son feels duty bound to resist ("My life is up to me.") Now the adolescent son will even rebel against self-interest to oppose his father, failing in high school and hurting his future to spite the educational agenda of his father.
Of course the ultimate outcome is always the same. Through active and passive resistance the son ultimately prevails because in the end, when it comes to adolescent independence, parents never defeat the teenager. The teenager always defeats the parent.
For the adolescent son, relationship to his father is complicated because it is so conflicted. He wants to measure up to his father, often wanting to follow his father's lead to gain his father's approval through similarity to the man's wishes; and yet, he also wants to strike out on an independent and individual path, and be defined and accepted on his own male terms. And it can become further complicated should he want to be better or do better than the man, or to fulfill aspirations that his father never could.
Therefore, just as a father should not discount a teenage daughter for not being similar enough to him, the man should not enforce excessive sex role similarity to him by his son. Should the father do so, the young man may pay a high price for independence: "My father treated me as a failure as a son for not succeeding to be a man like him." This is why the son needs the father's blessing: "I love and respect the man you have chosen to become."
Next week's entry: The challenge of mothering an adolescent son.