Joseph was one of those impossible teenagers. He was sullen, absorbed in computer games and social media. He refused to have even a slightly pleasant or respectful conversation with his parents. His grades in school were awful and any time his parents tried to talk to him about it, the discussion would degrade into shouting and cursing. The fighting sometimes became frighteningly aggressive, especially between Joseph and his dad.


Joseph’s parents considered themselves competent role models and disciplinarians. They had plenty of rules and responsibilities. While Joseph’s brothers and sisters were good students and well adjusted, Joseph and his parents were always in power struggles. He never liked rules and always tested authority. During family activities he would end up being the black sheep, even when the parents tried to avoid that outcome. After all, if everyone wanted to go to the aquarium, why did he always have to be the one who didn’t want to go ? As he became a teenager it only got worse. His anger, rudeness and lack of respect for authority not only hurt him and his parents but it also was dragging the whole family down. His siblings would complain why he got away with so much, and sometimes try to copy his behavior. It was all too much for everyone but where was it heading? Joseph was turning 16 soon and he has not even gotten close to growing out of this behavior. His parents thought of possibly not letting him learn to drive but he threatened to steal the family car and so it just made sense to offer him a healthy outlet instead of him resorting to criminal behaviors. 


Joseph’s father had a friend who was in a similar situation and he coached him that the key to all of it is unconditional love. He told him that once they stopped hassling with their child over every rule and stopped trying to control him, everything became calmer. His friend and his wife just said to their unruly child, “We love you and we trust you”. Suddenly, everyone in the family was relaxed and happy, and their son just did his own thing. “Zero expectation”, his friend said, “and then every now and then we get surprised.” Joseph’s Dad asked, “But, does he DO anything?” His friend answered, “Look, the other way wasn’t working and he was turning violent and sometimes suicidal. Now he’s happy and sometimes we even enjoy each other’s company. True, there are times where I grit my teeth like when he brings his girlfriend upstairs to his room, but in the end, what can I do? It’s better to have a relationship.”


Joseph’s parents wondered, “Is this the answer? Just to give up on discipline, and show love instead?” In a way, it made sense. After all NOTHING ELSE is working. At least this way, the home will be calmer. “But”, wondered his parents, “doesn’t that mean he wins? So basically, he gets to do whatever he wants. Isn’t that a way to bring up a sociopath? What about learning to follow rules?”


Joseph’s parents were grappling with a common problem of parenting in a world where kids grow up quickly. Fighting and control doesn’t work with certain children, so is the answer then unconditional love? Have rules now become suggestions? Have parents become coaches and peers, available when the child wants something but never to dare say “no”? Joseph’s parents thought: That other family seemed to be doing ok but they also lowered the bar so completely that there is no way to fail anyhow. Zero expectations - is this the new parenting method for a generation of “teacup children”, who have been so accommodated, that any stress or demand causes their fragile egos to shatter?


Situations where parent-child relationships have been so damaged by years of ineffective power struggles, rage and resentment may indeed benefit from a refreshing dose of love and calling for cease fire. Given the hostility and lack of trust, going to the other extreme can yield surprising results. However, as in most matters in life, it is easier to maintain the extreme. It is easier to either be involved arguing and fighting about everything or to make up your mind to ignore it than to employ moment by moment conscious discernment. In the same way it’s easier to fast than to eat carefully, or it is easier to abstain from alcohol entirely than it is to have just one drink once in a while. 


(Many addicts find that it is simply impossible for them to have “just one” of whatever their addiction is without losing control. For a substance or process that a person is addicted to, that may very well be the plain hard truth. But for other matters in life, true health lies say from the extremes.)


The best approach is unconditional engagement instead of unconditional love. Unconditional engagement means that you refuse to ignore, you refuse to run away, but you also refuse to use distancing mechanisms such as shame, blame and aggression. If your child is disrespectful or irresponsible unconditional love would direct you to say, “you’re fine” and ignore the misdeed. Unconditional engagement directs you to encounter, discuss and listen without resorting to anger, shame and blame - the junk food of human emotions and relationships. It feels good but has zero nutritional value. 


You ask what happened, you ask what he thinks about it. You state how you feel . You make statements about your values. You ask about his values. You can ask, “What are your thoughts about failing that test?”  You can make value statements such as, “It’s not a good thing for you or I to avoid talking this through, what do you think?” At first it may be challenging, anger provoking, and feel futile. Yet, human nature almost guarantees if you are genuine, you will over time achieve. The heart indeed knows the heart. That’s the unconditional part: “Nothing you do or day will make me ignore you, avoid you, or give up on you but neither will I aggress, rage, shame or blame. I will keep fighting FOR you but not with you.”


Here are some specific points to compare unconditional engagement with unconditional love:


  • Unconditional engagement is curious instead of judgmental 
  • Unconditional engagement is respectful instead of contemptuous 
  • Unconditional engagement is direct and optimistic instead of controlling and angry
  • Unconditional engagement makes sure to listen twice “as loud״ as talking
  • Unconditional engagement is loving and reality based instead of vindictive and punishing (meaning normal requests are granted and not held as chits against past or future behaviors)
  • Unconditional engagement is collaborative and patient instead of anger, shaming and blaming


A powerful idea from Carl Jung comes to mind: “The extent to which you are able to have impact and change on someone else is proportionate to your willingness to be impacted and changed by the other.”

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