This week I had a telephone meeting with a client, a father I’ll call Bill, with a so-called ‘difficult’ son. We had talked for the first time over a month before. He started by saying that things had been better to start with but had soon got worse again, and he embarked on a recital of problems, interspersed with his anger at how the son didn’t seem to get what he was telling him he should do. As I began to ask questions about what had been better, his tone hardened further.
Bill: I need advice! If you're just going to ask me questions like last time, this isn’t going to work!
HR: Well, I can only ask questions...
Bill (interrupting): Have you got experience of children lying, getting bullied, assaulted?
HR: I've worked in a school for 24 years so I guess I've seen most things.
Bill: So give me advice! And give it to me straight, be honest about what you think - I can take it!
HR: I'm sorry. I'm not a self-help manual. I can't tell you to turn to page 53 and there's the answer to your particular problem; I don't think life and relationships work that way. We have to work this out together.
Bill (sighs): Ok. So, how do we get him to have more confidence in himself?
HR: There you go again, with your ‘how do we get him to…’. Do you think you can get a teen to do anything just because you want it?
Bill: Yes, but if he could just be a bit stronger in himself and tell those others where to get off! I keep telling him that.
HR: And does that work?
Bill: No, not at all.
HR: So you have to find another way. As my mentor [Steve de Shazer] would say, ‘if it ain’t working, stop doing it and do something different’.
Bill: Like what?
HR: Well, what can you say when he’s complaining and you aren’t going to tell him what to do?
Bill: I don’t know! That’s what I keep saying – I want you to tell me!
HR: Here we go again! Let’s start here: what do you think he wants from you?
Bill: He has said he wants me just to listen, but…
HR (interrupting): Ok, let’s try it this way. Let’s role play – I’ll be him. ‘Dad, you just don’t understand what it’s like for me to have to eat alone in the canteen’.
Bill (quickly): I’m sorry about that. What you need to do is…
HR: ‘Don’t tell me what to do! Just listen to me!’
Bill (after a pause) Umm, I hear that you’re in pain.
HR (as myself): It’s good to express sympathy but you can’t talk to a teen like that! They’ve got the biggest bullshit detectors in the universe! When you press that sympathy button you have to act like you mean it.
Bill: But I don’t really feel it. I think he’s being a wimp!
HR: Ok, so you can feel he’s a wimp, and you can show him sympathy. Go on, have another go.
Bill (after a pause): I’m sorry. (pause) I’m really sorry. (pause) I felt that way when I was your age…
Later, he compared his son, unfavourably, to his older daughter, who he said was sensible and mature. He said that his daughter had told him that it seemed her brother was one of those who don’t trust your warning about getting burned until they’ve put their hand in the fire to find out for themselves. So we discussed the way children grow up differently. He expressed the fear that his son wouldn’t turn out ‘right’ and I said ‘it’s natural as a parent to fear for your kids, and you can tell yourself you have done the best you can in giving them a sound foundation for their lives. And if they trip up – or are tripped – they will pick themselves up and keep going’. He agreed. I then added, as I can never refrain from doing in these situations, how important it is as a parent to be flexible, rather than expecting them to conform to your ideas of how they should be. I quoted ‘my mentor’ again: ‘adolescence is God’s way of teaching parents to be flexible’.
Some details have been changed to protect anonymity.
13 March 2021