Good son gets angry

Joey wishes you would not text while walking.

My 14-year-old son refuses to forgive his 21-year-old brother for how my older son’s bad choices have impacted the family. We had a couple of years that were a whirlwind of turmoil, but my older son is now clean and sober, working, in college and has stopped seeing girls that I was embarrassed to have at my house. My younger son yells about how his loser brother gets off the hook, but I don’t notice anything he does well. It’s an exaggeration, but I have been trying to make certain that I acknowledge his good behavior and good grades more consistently. His anger about his older brother’s mistakes is out of control. Any ideas?

I’ll answer your question with some advice from my dad. When I was about 10 years old, he told me if I wanted to understand human nature, I should read the Bible or the Greek myths or the collected works of William Shakespeare. Billy’s early modern English put me off, but I devoured Bible stories and the Greek myths. If you had, too, you would be smiling and shaking your head right now. That’s because you’re living the story of the “Prodigal Son.” In that tale, a boy leaves home and parties away his inheritance until he’s so destitute that he’s living in a barnyard and fighting pigs for scraps. He has an “aha!” (“Why am I living like this?”) moment and returns home. His father welcomes him warmly and without reproach. The son who stayed home, worked hard and treated his papa with respect is furious.

Sound familiar? Your younger son needs help understanding what it means to be good. As Zen Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber points out in her terrific book, There is Nothing Wrong With You: For Teens: “It may be true that you make sacrifices, but that doesn’t make you good, it just means you make sacrifices. It may be true that you are responsible, but that doesn’t make you good, it just means that you are responsible. Perhaps doing in order to be good is what keeps you from realizing that you are already good.”

Your teen believes that he must earn his goodness and once he does, he will be rewarded. So when his brother returned and received your love and support simply because he is your son, your teen had to choose between his family and his belief system. His belief system won, because being self-righteous is better than facing the self-hate beneath his anger.

As your sons’ primary life guide, you must reveal, by word and example, how to handle mistakes. Reflection is essential to the process. Answers to questions like: “What was my motivation?” or “What could I have done differently?” can teach your teen the freedom to accept his brother’s mistakes, and his own.

My extended family gathers at a cabin the first weekend of every new year. My aunt Jenny has a new boyfriend who is obnoxious, racist and cheap. My mother (Jenny’s sister) and I have hinted that this man is not welcome to stay with us. Our request fell on deaf ears. How do we get through this?

Practice deep listening and hear what this man really fears. Racists are afraid of discovering that they are not special but are just like everyone else. Once you hear his fear, compassion—not anger—will infuse your words. At that point, you can give him guidelines for behavior (no racist jokes or comments are acceptable) and the consequences for violations (he will be asked to leave and cannot return for the remainder of the vacation). Don’t hint and hope that he or your aunt can decipher your intentions. Be direct and keep the backbone necessary to follow through on the consequences.

Meditation of the Week

“Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” This is an essential Buddhist meditation practice. Being present is the real gift. Are you giving?