I (David) worked with a fifteen year old boy who was an Olympic Gold Medalist in Manipulation. He had a 4.3 GPA, was a gifted golfer, and played guitar on the side. School wasn’t the only place this talented, bright young man would flex his well-developed cognitive muscle; he accessed his expansive vocabulary by throwing verbal daggers at family members when he didn’t get his way. As is often the case with teenagers, mothers can become the target of choice.
I coached his mom on the art of disengagement. We discussed how staying in the argument would never yield a desirable outcome, and how often talking in elevated moments backfires. We practiced not allowing her son to bait her in to sparring.
She once commented on how often talking with him felt like a hostage crisis - being taken prisoner. As she became skilled in the art of disengaging, and setting boundaries with statements like “I love you too much to argue,” or “I won’t continue a conversation with someone who disrespects me,” or “I’m going to take a break, and I’d be willing to talk with you at some point later,” he became more verbally aggressive. The more she set boundaries, the more manipulative he became.
She learned she often needed to go to her bedroom to exit the conversation, and sometimes she had to lock her door. He’d developed a habit of following her around the house, demanding to be heard. We worked on consequences for when he continued to violate a boundary with her. He quickly discovered banging on her door resulted in her logging on to AT&T and shutting down his phone’s abilities 100% of the time.
He must’ve been experimenting with a new strategy when he followed her to her room one day and began knocking gently, softly without pausing. It was this slow, steady, obnoxious knock that wouldn’t stop. She jumped in the shower to avoid the sound. He heard water running, stopped and returned fifteen minutes later with a last ditch effort. He waited until he could hear her moving around the room and then dramatically yelled, “what kind of mother won’t listen to her own son?”
We both laughed out loud when she shared the story. I reminded her when all that determination and resourcefulness were channeled for good, it would be fun to watch. We agreed he’d make an amazing trial lawyer. He was relentless!
I reminded this weary mom she was giving her son a gift in staying consistent with the practice of disengagement. I highlighted how grateful her future daughter-in-law would be that she stayed the course, interrupting this pattern of him believing the way a male gets his way is to simply wear a woman down. I reminded her she was modeling healthy boundaries in male/female relationships - that when a female says “I’m done talking,” his only option is to access restraint, whether he agrees with her or not.
I also reminded her of the words - we can practice being right or we can practice being kind. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe kind translates to nice. I believe it translates to respect and civility.
This young man wanted to, needed to, have the last word. He didn’t just want to be heard, he wanted to be right. Respect wasn’t on his agenda. It was his way or no way. Sadly, I’ve encountered too many adult men who never had a parent interrupt this pattern, who spent their lives practicing being right, and who grew into men who see conflict as an opportunity to win. Conflict became competition.
Do you have a toddler who follows you around the house melting down into a tantrum when he has an audience?
Do you have an elementary-aged son who makes it difficult to separate out when he’s struggling emotionally?
Do you have a tween or teen-aged son who can turn a conversation that isn’t going his way into a hostage crisis?
If so, check out the chapter on Boys & Boundaries for practical ideas on how to help him progress toward this important milestone.