Melanie and Ray were like many parents I've known. They had no experience with unconditional love, so they couldn't give it to their son, Bradley, who was twenty years old at the time I first met them. And they couldn't teach him to be accountable or responsible—they never told him no, for example—because they couldn't bear the disapproval he expressed when they tried to modify his behavior in any way.
But then Melanie and Ray learned about Real Love, and as they implemented the principles, they experienced remarkable growth in their marriage and in their ability to love Bradley and teach him to be more responsible. Bradley responded to their efforts with enormous victimhood and anger. His parents were puzzled. "We're loving him more than ever," Ray said. "Why is he being so difficult?"
"You didn't mean to do this," I said, "but all his life you've thoroughly trained Bradley that he could have whatever he wanted, that he didn't have to be responsible, that he didn't have to work, and that he could manipulate you simply by being angry. You taught him that those were the rules of life."
"And now we've changed the rules. And he doesn't like it."
"Exactly. All of a sudden you're saying that he can't have whatever he wants, he has to be responsible, he has to work, and you won't be manipulated. He doesn't see that you're trying to help him to be responsible and happy. He believes that you are being unkind and cheating him of what is rightfully his. He believes that you have no right to change the rules. It's all terribly unfair."
"Yeah, he uses that word a lot—unfair."
"The truth is, what you're doing now is right and fair and loving. Previously you were teaching him principles that don't work. All these years you've been wrong."
"We tried telling him that, but he flew into a rage."
Children who are raised to feel entitled and to act like victims are almost never grateful when you introduce Real Love, which includes the teaching of responsibility. They had a great racket going, and now you're disrupting the whole system of trading.
Not long after the above conversation, Melanie told me that she had written Bradley to ask whether she should come by his apartment to give him his birthday present, or would he prefer to come over to their home to get it. Following is his response by text message, accompanied by my comments to Melanie:
Bradley: I hate it that you're forcing me to tell you this . . .
Me: Melanie, I don't even need to read further. Bradley blaming you for all the unhappiness in his life. He's angry that you've disrupted his predictable world. Victims are always saying things like, "You're forcing me," and "I have no choice," and "It's not my fault."
Bradley: . . . but I just have to cut you two out of my life.
Me: Ah, an early knockout blow. He's been having little tantrums with you for quite some time, trying to get you to change the rules back to the way they were—the rules he liked, the rules that allowed him to have whatever he wanted. He's pouted, shouted, withdrawn, and more. But all that manipulation hasn't worked, so here's the ultimate threat, that he'll cut you off. He knows that you're afraid of his disapproval, so he's sure that this ultimate withdrawal of his approval will serve to bring you back to your senses. Also notice that again he's not making a conscious, rational decision. No, he "has to" cut you out. It's not his fault. He has no choice. This is how victims speak and behave.
Bradley: I'm not going to tell you why I'm doing this, because you'd just tell me that you're trying to love me and teach me and all that Real Love crap.
Me: He's not going to give you his reasons, because he's lying on the floor having a tantrum, and that behavior is pretty impossible to justify reasonably. He's telling you that there's no way he's going to give up his victimhood or his lack of responsibility. And if he dismisses unconditional love as "crap," then he doesn't have to pay attention to any of the principles therein.
Bradley: I know you and dad think you're happy, but you're just fooling yourselves.
Me: Victims are never wrong. Everyone else is wrong. For Bradley—as with all victims—the definition of "right" means giving him what he wants, and if you refuse to do what's "right" according to that definition, you are wrong and couldn't possibly be happy. If a victim is unhappy, he'll ensure that everyone else is too.
Bradley: I didn't want this to happen . . .
Me: With victims things just "happen." They never have any responsibility for what occurs.
Bradley: . . . but I just don't know you anymore.
Me: He's finally speaking something close to the truth now. He really doesn't know you. You've learned some true principles and changed your lives, and that is very confusing to him. Of course, he didn't really know you before either, but at least he knew how you'd react to his manipulations. Now he doesn't.
"So what am I supposed to do now," Melanie asked me. "Do I take his birthday present to his apartment?"
"No," I said. "He's having a tantrum specifically so you'll pay more attention to him. His life revolves around manipulating people to get what he wants—which makes Real Love impossible—so you don't want to go back to that."
"It sounds like you're suggesting that now that he's cut us off, we'll be cutting him off in return. It feels like revenge."
"Sure, I see how it could look like that, but you are not cutting him off. You're simply choosing how and when to love him, rather than rewarding his manipulations. If you take over his gift now—immediately after his threatening message—he'll regard your behavior as a direct response to his threat. You'll be teaching him again that all he has to do is throw a fit, and you'll give him what he wants."
"So what should I do?"
"Truly love him, unconditionally and in a gradually increasing way. He's made it quite clear that he doesn't want you to teach him responsibility, and at his age he has a right to make that choice. At age twenty, he's not obligated to listen to a word you say. So, for now, you only love him—gradually, in a way you choose, so he doesn't feel like he's manipulating you for the attention you give. And you take it slowly, so he doesn't feel like you're desperate for his approval.
"Another reason to go slowly is so he doesn't feel like you're entirely ignoring his command to get out of his life. To be specific, text him every few days. Be casual but endearing. You might, for example, text him saying, 'Just thinking of you. Mom." Email him—but not too often, so you're not clinging. Send him a small gift in the mail. Whatever. Each message and each act is just a way of saying, I love you."
Two weeks later, Ray called me. "Bradley texted me to say that his rent and car payment are past due."
"I'm sure they are."
"So what should we do?"
"Anything you want, obviously, but didn't Bradley say that he had cut you off?"
"So now he wants to cut you off but not your money?"
"That does seem a little strange."
"More like crazy."
"Agreed. So if I refuse to pay his rent and his car payment, won't he think I'm punishing him?"
"He might, so you have to be absolutely certain that you're not punishing him. And if you understand that what you're doing here is loving, you'll know you're not punishing him."
"I don't quite understand."
"So far Bradley has not learned to be responsible, mainly because you haven't taught him that principle. The essence of responsibility is that when you make choices, you also take upon yourself the burden of the consequences of those choices. Agreed?"
"But with Bradley that got all screwed up. Sure, you've let him make his own choices, but then you have paid the price for his choices. You let him pick his own apartment, for example, and buy a car, but then you have paid for both. That's the opposite of being responsible. So now you're going to finally teach him that he's responsible for his choices, and one way to do that is to let him pay for his own rent and car. Or he could walk or get a bus to work. He might need to get a smaller apartment. He might have to stop going to bars, because it's expensive. These are all principles he needed to learn long ago. His cutting you off, however, is a perfect opportunity for him to learn the price of making certain choices. He has declared his independence, and financial independence is part of that."
"This could be pretty great, actually."
"Yes, hardly revenge. You'll finally be loving and teaching your son, but that doesn't mean that he'll appreciate what you're doing. He's fighting you because he doesn't want to learn responsibility. He wants you to take care of him, as though he were still a small child. He wants the responsibility of a child but the choices of an adult. Very confusing for him."
Our children have tantrums specifically so we will not bother them with the inconvenient lessons of life—how to be responsible and loving, for example. If these tantrums make us uncomfortable, we'll stop teaching the lessons, and everyone will lose.
It takes courage and faith to be a real parent, and we must be willing to pay that price if we wish our children to be truly happy, rather than just entertained and pampered.
Learn how to be a real parent
Eliminate entitlement and conflict with your children.