I’ve always thought that my husband, Yitz, and our son Tani had a lot in common. Besides looking similar, they are similar in nature. From the time Tani was young, he had a strong personality like his father and his own ideas about things. As a little boy, we thought it was cute, and Yitz would often call Tani “mini-me” with pride.
Over the past year, as Tani enters adolescence, he and his father are constantly knocking heads. It’s a constant battle of wills that seems to be escalating. Everything turns into a fight and neither of them is willing to back down — ever! Obviously, this is creating enormous tension in the house and everyone is feeling it. Our pleasant home has become unpleasant. I see how it is affecting our other children. The older ones either hide in their rooms or go to friends often. The younger ones seem irritable. Personally, I can’t deny that I, too, would love to disappear at times!
I can’t honestly say who is in the wrong, nor do I know what position I should take. Tani could be more respectful, and I know it is incumbent upon him to show “kibbud av va’eim.” But often it seems to me as if Yitz is goading him and trying to start something when there doesn’t even have to be an issue. For instance, Yitz will make comments on how Tani brushes his hair — of all things — as if it matters. It will turn into a huge deal. If Tani is helping me clear off the table on Shabbos, which I appreciate, Yitz will comment on how he is stacking the plates and doing it wrong. These are trivial things that don’t matter; Yitz doesn’t have to be commenting on these points, and yet he seems unable to stop himself, and everything becomes a reason to insult, which leads to Tani defending himself. Before you know it, a fight ensues. Often, Tani is doing me a favor and still Yitz finds something to comment on negatively.
I’m not saying that Tani is perfect. He shows some dislike of his father these days, not outright, but in a passive-aggressive way, like keeping his distance and never trying to engage him anymore. Frankly, I don’t blame him, since when he does try to engage his father, it takes on an adversarial tone and doesn’t end well.
When I question Yitz about why he is so tough on Tani, he tells me that he isn’t trying to be tough but that Tani is turning into a disrespectful teenager and he needs to nip it in the bud. (From what I hear, Yitz wasn’t such a great teenager to his parents and maybe he doesn’t want Tani to turn into the teenager he once was.) Whatever the case, I don’t know what my role should be when the two of them are going at it. I think that Yitz initiates the tension most of the time, but I also think that Tani can be disrespectful as a result. Meanwhile, I tend to leave the room so that the two of them can fight it out and I don’t have to watch. I feel like I’m being a coward and that there is something I should be doing to break this tension between them, but I don’t know what. Any suggestions?
Raising teenagers is not an easy process. As these children — soon to be adults — begin to navigate this period of their lives, during which time they have to figure out who they are, many find it to be fraught with major struggles and tough times. These struggles are usually more pronounced between parents and children of the same gender — meaning fathers and sons or mothers and daughters.
In your case, with your husband and son sharing certain similar personality traits, it becomes that much more complicated, as it can trigger additional feelings of competition, regret, concern, plus the possibility of old issues resurfacing.
I’m sure it is hard for you to be in the middle of it all, with feelings of loyalty and disappointment toward both your husband and son. Plus, no one wants to live in an adversarial environment where tensions rise high and the joy is gone. Running away isn’t the answer, though I understand why you want to remove yourself. But at least you haven’t gotten in the middle of the flying verbal bullets, because when people do that, they often wind up becoming collateral damage.
I think the most important thing to remember, if you choose to become proactive in inserting yourself into this dynamic, is to always make sure to have your conversations with Yitz and Tani separately. Speak to them one on one, when the other person is not within hearing range. You never want either of them to think you are taking the other one’s side, but you can and should share your observations with each of them privately.
You believe that Yitz is heavy-handed in his handling of Tani and that perhaps he is almost trying to provoke a reaction from him, followed by a fight. In a calm, safe way, talk to Yitz about your observations. It’s possible he isn’t aware of what he is contributing to his declining relationship with Tani. If Yitz sees you as someone who is neutral, maybe he’ll be able to self-reflect and look at his behavior more critically.
The same goes for Tani. Speak to him privately, validate how he is probably feeling picked on at times, but remind him that he has the power to stop the incident from escalating by just not reacting. Let him know that you realize that it’s not an easy thing to do, but that you believe his life will be calmer and happier if he can learn how to pull that off.
Most important, try not to let Yitz and Tani’s issues become issues between you and either of them. Don’t let Yitz’s behavior toward his son become a marital issue, despite feeling at times, I’m sure, your heartstrings tug for Tani. You certainly don’t need that on top of everything else.
If nothing improves, you may want to suggest to both Yitz and Tani that they go together for family therapy. It would certainly benefit both of them and hopefully lay a foundation for a healthier relationship. Also, keep in mind that often, though not always, this represents a stage of life that will eventually improve over time.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.