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Fathers and Sons: Why Is Passing the Baton so Difficult?

It can be hard for a father to accept that the time has come to be replaced.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

By Leon Hoffman, M.D.

Source: Stockfour/Shutterstock

John, or "Junior," as he was called, was the apple of his successful father’s eye. As the namesake and eldest of three, Junior was destined to replace the “old man,” as everyone called him, as head of the company. 

Now 27, a graduate of a prestigious MBA program, just married, and after many summers learning the various aspects of the company, John was about to join the family business as Chief Executive Officer.

On the road as heir to the throne of the family business, he now wanted to be addressed as “John.” However, John, Sr., who remained as Chairman of the Board, insisted that his son would still be called “Junior” by everyone at the firm.

John, Jr. then had a big blow-up with his father, giving him an ultimatum. The father was unrelenting, and John, Jr. left the firm to strike out on his own.

John, Jr. discussed in an ongoing way the issues between him and his father in his therapy. Although John, Jr. had minimized the potentially explosive conflicts between himself and his father, he came to understand that his father would likely have difficulties with the son’s ascent in the company. He became convinced that his father would keep him relegated to an inferior position. 

Why do many fathers need to lord their ongoing power over their children? Is it a need for the older generation to hold onto its power? Is possible to defuse this need to prevent the younger generation from taking over?

Many have noted that the adult generation often has difficulties in allowing their children to succeed. In fact, the Greek myth of Laius and Oedipus speaks to this problem.

In the Greek myth, Laius exposed his son, Oedipus, to the elements to die. In psychological terms, this myth represents the ways in which the father’s needs supersede those of the child, whom the father sees as a rival, trying to prevent the inevitable replacement of one generation by the next.

Similarly, the Hebrew Bible depicts an early instance where a father worries that his son will supplant him and, thus, the father forcefully and aggressively drives him away. This is described in Genesis 3:22-24, where God—fearful that Adam will gain immortality by eating from the tree of life—drives Adam out of the Garden of Eden after Adam has learned to know good from evil.

Many have written about the ubiquity of parental ambivalence of both mothers and fathers towards their own offspring. Because of such ambivalence, parents may not appreciate that by adolescence children need to feel convinced that parents are supportive of a young person’s desires to become autonomous and independent. This is called “parental sponsorship.”

Unfortunately, parental sponsorship does not always happen in family businesses; one often hears the child’s lament that the parent won’t let them grow up. This was the conflict between John, Sr. and John, Jr. In fact, competitive conflicts occur more frequently between fathers and sons, since they are two men in “battle.” 

On the surface, a father may worry his son will not be able to carry out the required tasks for the organization. More likely, it can be difficult for a father to accept that the time has come to be replaced by his son. Therefore, it may be psychologically easier for a father to hand over the reins to a non-family member. A great deal of self-reflection needs to occur for a father not to undermine a son’s progressive development, either subtly or overtly, and to feel pleasure in his child’s development.

So what can fathers and sons do to ameliorate tension between the generations?

  • Both parties must acknowledge to themselves the ubiquity of conflict.
  • They have to realize that conflict cannot be eradicated, but rather tolerated and mastered in order to prevent the conflict from leading to a rupture which cannot be repaired.
  • The father must recognize that the son needs to feel that negative emotions about letting go of his power.
  • the father supports his ambitions.
  • The son needs to recognize that a father may develop strong negative feelings about letting go of his power.

With these ideas in mind, fathers and sons are better able to repair any inevitable ruptures that occur.

About the Author: Leon Hoffman, M.D., is the co-Director of the Pacella Research Center, New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. He is Chief Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst at the West End Day School, NYC, and a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He is the co-author of Regulation Focused Psychotherapy for Children.


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