The third person is essential for emotional health

A dad is trying to playfully connect with his 9 year old at a restaurant. The boy is standing to Imagehis left side and the father has his arm around him. Both seem a little uncomfortable. The dad starts throwing what feels like a math quiz at the child.

What’s the 40% of 50? the dad asks and the boy can’t easily find the answer.

The dad gives him clues, takes him to “what’s the 40% of a hundred?” to which the boy easily replies 40 and then the dad insists with the former question.

Even though this time the boy easily says 20, he is frustrated and concludes, “I’m not smart, dad.”

This simple anecdote of an interaction between father and son makes me think of a hundred things.

For one, how difficult it is to respond sometimes to the emotional needs of another person!

The father’s intention seems to be to communicate with his son, to play with him, to stimulate the child’s brain. However, he doesn’t seem to realize he’s making the child feel incompetent and stupid. Not a good foundation for a parent-child relationship, but unfortunately this interaction is not uncommon between adult and young males.

There was an implicit “leave me alone” plead from the boy that the father never got. I am pretty sure the child will remember this one as a humiliating moment where he perceived his father was more intelligent. He will probably also feel that his father sees him as a failure and therefore won’t feel proud of him. Not unlikely, the father-son memory will be recorded with some resentment that will mark even the son’s choice of career (not good for math, I will choose art).

The saddest thing though is not only that the father didn’t pay attention to the child’s discomfort (the father kept insisting) but that the dad’s good intention was not recognized either.

I believe in these cases a third person is essential. Was this a divorced father sharing weekend time with his child? The mother was not there. Would she have stopped the father from going on with the quiz to protect the child? Would she have interpreted and explained to the child what his father’s intention was?

I’ve seen how important it is for single parents to have a third person reinforce their authority, share responsibilities, explain their intentions to the child.

I’ve also seen how important it is for a child who is verbally mistreated in public to have a third person intervene and stop the abuse. It takes the blame out of him/her (“It is not something I did what explains my parent’s behavior”).

I am certain that in many occasions our perception of the world is tinted and biased because we lack the third person in our lives who can explain and interpret the facts for us. For example, a grandfather who provides a different perspective; the stranger who defends the child; the wife who explains the father’s intention; the therapist who allows for a space where emotions are acknowledged and things can be seen from a new perspective.

Let’s look for opportunities where our children can see the two sides of a coin. That will help them integrate lightness and darkness and grow emotionally healthy.

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