Our 20-year-old son recently returned home from a year learning in Israel. He is boy who struggled a lot in his teens both academically and religiously...He seems to have had an excellent year of growth, he likes his rabbeim [teachers] and has learned a lot about being a mentsch, though he still has a way to go. He is very proud of his year and some new concepts and ideas he has learned. The yeshiva has an emphasis on emotional health and he has really taken to it. He has however become very opinionated and not very flexible and can dominate conversations with his ideas that he considers to be 100 percent true. He has long speeches about the problems with the "system" and has all sorts of recommendations for his siblings (ages 9-16) including that they should all be in therapy because it is good for everyone and he even suggested one of his sisters should try medication because "it's not a big deal." He can also overshare a bit. We have talked to him about it but he has become a bit...[rigid]...about things. This is better than the unhappy kid he used to be but this has become uncomfortable for us and his siblings. How can we continue to be supportive but encourage him to be a bit more open to the fact that not everyone shares his experience and ideas and not all ways are appropriate for everyone?
Balancing the needs of one child against those of another can be difficult. You may be suggesting that your 20-year-old son’s needs with regard to self-expression seem to run counter to the needs of his younger siblings. If this is the case, clearly identifying each person’s needs can help you to bring things into perspective so that you would have more clarity as to whether action needs to be taken.
For instance, your young children may need to be in a place where they readily accept the “system.” This can be the case for various reasons, including their need for a sense of safety. There is a reason that we teach young children in more simplex and absolute terms, reserving more elaborate and multifaceted instruction for older and more mature children.
Once you identify the specific needs of each family member, you will have a better idea of what it is that makes you uncomfortable with your son’s verbalization of his beliefs. At that point, you could weigh each person’s needs against those of others in order to identify appropriate responses.
I wonder whether your son insists on sharing his perspective simply because it’s what he believes, and he doesn’t understand the impact on others—or whether he feels a specific need to involve others in his thoughts. Building an independent sense of self is a significant aspect of development in adolescence and early adulthood. This is the reason that many teenagers vacillate with regard to religiosity and other areas of life. Part of the reason that your son was unhappy may have been that he had no clear sense of individualized identity. If his year in Israel helped him to develop a sense of identity built on the concepts that he keeps sharing, he may feel the need to constantly reinforce these. If this is true, the question becomes how to allow him this leeway without negatively impacting on the rest of the family.
You mentioned that your son’s oversharing leads to discomfort. For whom is it uncomfortable, and for what reasons? Are you simply uncomfortable with the content of his messaging even when no one other than you is involved? Or are you uncomfortable because of the implications that these discussions have on your other children? With regard to your own discomfort, it is a matter of working that through in order to help your son continue to develop his sense of self.
You may be most concerned with the impact on your other children. However, you are clearly also concerned with your 20-year-old son’s needs. If you believe that he should be allowed to voice his opinions, you can help him to identify an appropriate outlet. This may be part of what the yeshiva in Israel provided to him. I don’t know whether your son is currently in a yeshiva, or otherwise connected with mentors. If he is, you can discuss this with him and them.
If you can yourself be such an outlet, you can let him know that you are happy to discuss his thoughts and beliefs at length, thus validating his feelings. Letting him know that he has a safe and enduring source of validation may reduce his need to share with others. Once he feels confutable with your validation of his feelings, you can reinforce the notion that there are appropriate and inappropriate relationships and social setting within which to discuss certain thoughts.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200