Good enough

Good enough

A boy spurned by his dad needs to know he’s loved

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 02/13/2014

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Dear Patti,
My husband and I have two daughters as well as a nephew (14) who we love like he’s our own. Ethan is my sister’s son and since her husband travels a lot for business, we have helped out over the years having Ethan stay with us.  

Ethan’s father is very strict and extremely hard on him. His grades are currently substandard and — to his father’s intense disappointment and anger — he did not make the school basketball team. On top of that, his father actually told him that he couldn’t bear to look at him right now and wants him to stay with us for awhile, maybe even for the rest of the school year. 

My husband and I have no problem with this arrangement, because we really love having him. What we’re concerned about is that no matter how badly Ethan’s father treats him, Ethan still adores and idolizes him. We just can’t understand why he’s so desperate for his father’s approval and that nobody else’s opinion counts.

We definitely don’t want to put Ethan’s father down in front of him; it’s just that we hate to see Ethan keep getting rejected. I know it’s not a healthy dynamic and our eldest daughter worries Ethan might someday marry a girl like his dad who gives only conditional love and is impossible to please. We don’t want to interfere. We just want to grasp the bigger picture and help.

—Megan

Dear Megan,
It’s clear you love Ethan, want to help and yet are limited to change the father and son dynamic, nor can you control or easily alter any emotional damage occurring from their relationship. You’re doing the right thing by offering an alternative place for Ethan that is nurturing and loving. It must be difficult to consistently love and care for him, only to see him repeatedly rejected by the father he turns to. Try to not take it personally, as Ethan’s behavior is most likely not because of you or your husband.  

If Ethan’s father is indeed extremely authoritarian and only shows his son love, approval, or emotional contact conditionally when Ethan performs perfectly but withdraws when Ethan’s behavior disappoints him, then the normal attachment and emotional tie that occurs between a father and a son has probably been deeply disrupted. This causes Ethan to feel pain, rage and grief at not being “good enough” to be accepted and treasured by his own father. 

Ethan might also be experiencing shame evoked because his attachment needs for his father are rejected. Children in such situations often develop psychological defenses against feeling the heartbreaking, agonizing emotions including intense anxiety. 

Unfortunately, but understandably, Ethan may be using a common but unhealthy defense, which is to keep intensely trying to win the love of the detached parent, convinced that the lack of loving commitment is his own fault because of his undesirable behavior, never questioning that the problem may be due to something lacking in his parent. In Ethan’s case, he could very well believe that his low academic or athletic achievements are the real reason he’s unloved and, therefore, tries incessantly to seek approval. It’s not unusual that he has deep loyalty toward his father, no matter how rejecting he may be. Further, he continually hopes that these interactions will change if he’s able to improve and to get another chance of having a more positive, loving relationship. Ethan may have lost touch with his own likes and dislikes, what he believes in and what feels good to him. Sometimes these children remain deeply attached through their developmental years despite the fact that love never seems to be forthcoming.

Rather than express negative comments about his father, just let Ethan know that you don’t believe healthy love is judgmental or conditional. Continue to be emotionally available and provide a nurturing environment. While it won’t necessarily happen, if Ethan doesn’t work this dynamic through there’s more of a chance he’ll perpetuate the destructive pattern and either bond with a future partner that treats him like his father does or assume a relationship role where he, himself, is the rejecting one. 

It would be extremely beneficial for Ethan to be in counseling at this time to get in touch with his full range of feelings and to learn to integrate both the good and bad aspects of his father as well as himself. This will help ensure that his future relationships will be more affirming and positively responsive.   

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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