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Hax: Dad's eagerness to fix problems inadvertently causes son to avoid him

| Sunday, May 3, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Adapted from a recent online discussion:

Dear Carolyn:

My 14-year-old son said to me this morning, “I guess I will learn to rant to you and not Dad,” after a frustrating conversation the night before where Son wanted to tell us about football frustrations and Husband insisted on trying to fix the problem, including calls to the coach, principal, you name it.

While his desire to be an active, engaged dad is great — and very unlike his own dad — he doesn't know when to back off. Son's comment confirmed what I've feared (and found myself doing): that the kids won't tell him about problems for fear he'll jump in inappropriately.

This comes from a real strength of his — he is not afraid to take on a difficult conversation or battle and wants to advocate for his family. But, sometimes, we all just need to have a sympathetic ear. I try to fill that role for the kids, but I hate to see them not talk to their well-meaning dad.

— Sympathetic Ear

About that “real strength” — does your son think the same of his dad? And, if so, is it a strength your son would like to develop himself (albeit with better awareness of the off switch)?

He can do this by waiting till he's calm, and then approaching his father about the frustration he felt last night. “I realize you just want to help me, Dad, I appreciate that. And you're good at handling things like this — but I want to get good at it, too, and that means I need to come up with my own answers — even the wrong ones, sometimes.”

By doing this, your son will address not just his relationship with Dad, but also the football problem or whatever one follows that. He'll be developing the skill of having difficult conversations, which will then teach him to advocate for himself.

Plus, it beats just avoiding Dad, right? Yes, sometimes it comes to that, but if it's anything short of an absolute last resort, then it's forcing two people to overpay for the well-meaning transgression of parental overinvolvement. The parent-child relationship is too important to just quit on, and 14 is a fine age for your son to start practicing adult ways to assert himself, set limits and articulate his reasons.

As you talk to your son about this, you, too will, need to summon your strength. When your co-parent is struggling, you might find that even though you are concerned for that parent and child, you're also secretly gratified to be the parent who's getting it right. And, so, it can be tempting to be the hero parent and just let your child default to you, and cut the struggling parent out of the loop.

But that's enabling dysfunction. A good parent needs to help the child and other parent work things out. You can lay the foundation here, too, with your husband: “Son really respects you, but he's sensitive to advice now — he's learning to figure things out for himself. Maybe just hear him out, unless he specifically asks?” Husband might want a sympathetic ear himself.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, and follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax.

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