Writer and broadcaster

“Our student son is angry. He thinks we’ve deprived him of his culture.” Published in The Guardian

Dear Annalisa


We have lived in the UK for 15 years and have one child – a son who is bright, funny, kind and caring. We sent him to a school of academic acclaim, but he didn’t make use of the various opportunities, despite his father and me prodding him to do so. And while he is at university and doing well, he could have made it to one of the top five universities had he put in the effort. While that saddened us, we were happy that he settled in and was doing well.

As he grew up, we visited our families back home annually. He enjoyed those holidays. However, on return he didn’t bother to keep in touch with his cousins, however much I asked him to, or reminded him. Similarly, I attempted to teach him our mother tongue several times, but he was not interested.

University life has turned him into a mature, loving and caring young man – he helps me with household chores when he visits in the holidays, chats to me and appreciates what we have done for him as parents.

At the beginning of last year, I mentioned internships in the motherland, as he hadn’t managed to get one here (although he hadn’t tried very hard). He applied for and secured one. Off he went, a well-balanced, confident young man. He lived with my sister and did well; it helped him decide on his career path. He also bonded well with everyone in the family.

But my son noticed that the other cousins had a strong bond, a shared history and a language he didn’t speak, although he understood it well. He conveniently forgot all our attempts to teach him about our culture. He returned full of rage, all broken and shaken up. He raved and ranted at us, so we reminded him about our attempts to teach him our language etc. He grudgingly accepted this and declared he was going back after graduation to settle there. We gave him our full support (as usual) and he began to learn the language, with me as a teacher. Sessions have been very painful – a lot of it involved him spewing hateful words and accusations. He is back at university now, full of rage and anger against us.

Anon, via email

It seems that your son is going through a rebellion of the sort usually seen in adolescence. Maybe it’s only now he dares to feel he can rebel.

I appreciate how much you love your son, but I found your longer letter suffocating (you asked me to cut out all identifying details regarding your country etc). You are confusing love and control. His life is not yours to lead. This relentless prodding and critiquing, while well meant, will be eroding his self-esteem, which is worth more than any degree from any university. He must sense that his real self cannot be trusted to do anything at all. No wonder he feels so wretched.

I contacted a psychologist, Dr Funke Baffour (bps.org.uk), who was also brought up across two cultures. She helped me to see how important study and education are to your culture, and how you equate education with “doing well” in life, even though there are many things in which a child can excel that can’t be marked in an exam.

Baffour says: “You’ve certainly put a lot into your son and you’ve done a good job, but you’re still trying to do everything for him. You really need to take a step back now. If your son makes decisions that are wrong for him, let him. What are you scared of if you lose control over him?”

The one real insight in your longer letter seemed to come from your husband. Baffour suggests that you try to take a back seat and let him deal mainly with your son for the moment, to take the heat out of the situation.

Let your son be himself. The right life – the one that will make him happy and fulfilled, and able to bend with what life throws at him – is the one he chooses, not the one you think is best. Think of it like gardening: a plant that grows in the right environment for the plant (not the gardener!) grows strong and resilient. One forced into the wrong spot will wither.

I don’t doubt that your son might benefit from counselling, but that will have to be his decision (in time, maybe something your husband could suggest). But I think you could do with counselling, too.

First published in the Guardian Family section.