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My son alienates himself...why?

I have a married son who himself is a father, and we have "periods" with him. Sometimes he calls. Sometimes he answers the phone when we call him, and he speaks to us respectfully, warmly, and joyfully.

Then sometimes he will suddenly disconnect for a few days. He doesn't call and will not answer our phone calls. I might have thought he was just busy, but it also happens when he stays with us, so I've seen the behavior first hand. On Friday night he can be the most engaging person in the world, participating in the meal and the conversation. Everything flows.

Then on Saturday morning, he's is shut down and alienated. He doesn't talk or respond. He can sit at our family meal and not look in my or my wife's direction. He sits in silence almost the entire time until the meal is over.

What can we do?


This question was posed to me face to face. As such, I didn't answer right away. I "smelled" that there was something more to this story than was being presented to me.

I wanted to fully hear out the questioner and allow him to express himself completely. I had a feeling there was more to this narrative and was hoping it would naturally reveal itself. Here are some of the nuggets of information that impressed themselves upon me: someone in the family was giving some kind of performance. The wife of the aforementioned son came to the event to congratulate the family member, and the son came with her. Since they lived some distance away, it really was a sacrifice. The son's father (the person posing the question to me) said to his son, "Why are you here? Are you crazy? Why are you going out of your way to attend this event?" The son answered whatever he answered, but it was the father's approach that I took note of.

Further in the conversation, the father revealed more: the son's self-estrangement also occurred in the past, before he was married. From time to time he would come home and disappear to his room without speaking. Even when he was in his yeshiva dormitory, there were times when he wouldn't answer the phone. At this point, the problem became clear: criticism!

If his son already came to the event mentioned above, why make him feel uncomfortable or foolish about it? He and his wife made the decision to attend the performance, so rejoice in his arrival! Show him that you enjoy seeing him.

There was more: the father at one time pulled the son aside for a talk. The father told him that since he has younger brothers, he would be happy to understand how his (the father's) relationship with them can be improved. What can the son can share from his experience, now that he's older? The son gently tried to talk about the issue of the father's criticism. The father response was...more criticism! He charged that the son was not capable of hearing criticism, that there is actually no such thing as criticism. The father also said that, with reference to marital harmony, as we know, we shouldn't complain to each other, rather just express our own desires. But of course people do have issues that bother them, and they will complain, so you just have to learn to live with criticism (i.e., deal with it!). That was more or less the end of the conversation between them.

The result? A week later, they were at a family function, and the son "ran away" before the event ended, according to the father's telling of it. At this point, I was able to fully piece the puzzle together. The father is a smart man, so the criticism he gives is clever, not so direct. It is implicit, hidden. As hard as it is to deal with direct criticism, it's much harder to deal with indirect criticism!

It would have been very easy for me to advise the father to stop visiting or contacting his son: his son is a married man, and the father can now officially retire from "educating" his son (not that criticism is ever an education). Let the son live his own life, and make his own mistakes.

The problem is that the issue of indirect criticism won't be resolved just by having the critic distance himself from the people he criticizes. Some issue or event has to make it rise to the surface so that it can be observed and dealt with, an event that will force the "sufferer" (the one afflicted with the bad habit of criticizing incessantly) to reach the completely opposite conclusion (opposite to just "deal with it"), that is, that the critical person does indeed need to make some changes.

From here on is the answer I gave the father: first of all, the conversation between him and his son should never have been conducted as it was, which is initially as an innocent question posed by the father, an honest answer from the son, and then just when the son dared to open up and share (as per the father's request!), the father criticizes him — and destroys the already tenuous connection, once again. I'm almost certain that the son's early escape from the family function was because of this conversation. He didn't want to place himself in a position where he may have to face his father disapproval yet again.

The father's question (of what he himself can improve) has merit, as does the son's answer — if it were heard, accepted, and absorbed — not rejected and returned to sender with bonus criticism. Implicit criticism, subtle snide remarks, come from negative thoughts. If you think badly of the other, it will somehow find expression, especially toward someone you're close with, such as a parent toward a child or one spouse toward the other.

Let's say the person on the receiving end of the criticism really is problematic. Aren't the negative thoughts justified? After all, he really is so annoying! (This sentiment, too, was eventually expressed by the father in the conversation with me.) Let's think about it: is he just problematic? Doesn't he have any good qualities? If you make an effort to gather evidence of another person's positive aspects, you will find them, most likely.

We must understand that we possess a "mind" that collects the data, but we also have a "heart," which is the seat of the emotions. As written in Deuteronomy 4:39, "Therefore know this day, and consider it in your heart..." What you know in the mind, you must impress upon the heart for consideration and integration. Knowing something is not enough. It won't activate you until it is proactively integrated into the seat of the emotions. Our instinctual (self-preserving animal) self is very aware of this process, and it will always bring knowledge down into the heart. However, it will focus on the knowledge that it is interested in, such as a negative view of those close to us.

How does our animal self make us emotionally integrate negativity about people? By making us think about it again and again. We don't just observe it and move on, we delve into it, ruminate on it, imagine and illustrate it to ourselves, and speak about it repeatedly. The negative observation turns into a kind of self-righteous anger that fuels itself because, when people are angry, they talk about what makes them angry with great emotion. Speaking fuels the fire of anger, and the positive facts are eventually overridden and disappear from view: "He really is a good boy, but I don't know why he doesn't talk to me." Verbalizing a negative observation isn't enough. When negativity is spoken aloud and ruminated on quantitatively and tangibly, the heart receives and integrates it. If you think about something for a long time, it seeps into the heart. If it's tangible, that is, you imagine it right in front of your eyes, it goes down to the heart, filling it, and thus activating all the systems.

The solution then is to think positively about the person and not allow the negative thoughts to take over the mind. The technique is to try not to think the negative thoughts. If they come into your mind of their own accord, then distract yourself from them. Do not give these thoughts leave to take over your imagination.

Now this won't always work. Sometimes you have to actively fight against the negative thoughts, not just run away from them. So here is another suggestion: take a pen and paper. Ask yourself what you feel toward your son (as per the specific case of this Q&A) or whichever person is the subject of your negative opinion. When I asked our questioner what he feels right now about his son, he thought a while and then identified the feeling. He said, "I feel humiliation, embarrassment." You may identify more than one negative emotion toward the person you tend to criticize.

Then ask yourself to what degree from 1 to 10 do you hold this feeling toward them, and write the answer. The father's answer was 7. The next step is to describe at length what exactly you feel, and be as specific as you can. Shining a light on negativity, exposing it in all its "glory," is like turning on a bright light in a dark room; the darkness instantly vanishes.

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