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College Prep: Communication

Early in her freshman year, one patient's daughter would frequently call home in tears, saying things like, “I just don’t belong at this school.” The mother would hang up the phone in a mood of despair that lingered for days. However, by the time Thanksgiving came, the daughter reported that she loved her school and was eager to get back to her friends there.

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Children often turn to us at the worst of times, while it seems much less urgent to be in touch when things are going well. Therefore, parents may get a highly skewed picture of how their children are really doing.

We want so much for them to be happy that it becomes tempting to try to help them out of their predicament by giving them advice.

I distinctly remember a phone call with my son during his sophomore year while he was trying to make a difficult decision. He called me, distraught. He wanted my opinion but then argued with whatever advice I gave. I was reduced to saying, “I’m sorry you feel so bad.”

I hung up feeling worried about him for the rest of that day. The next morning I called to see how he was doing.To this day, I still remember what he said to me: “Mom, do you have to call me every day?”

He had dumped all his worries into my lap and gone off feeling lighter. He did not call to let me know how much the phone call had helped. He might not even have been aware that it had.

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It reminded me of the first patient I ever saw in private practice, a young woman who had just ended an affair. Every week she would come into my office and weep about how heartbroken, alone and hopeless she felt.

I mostly just sat there and listened to her, making the occasional sympathetic murmur. I felt like a fraud, and assumed that a more experienced therapist would have more helpful strategies and insights to help ease her intense pain.

The sessions continued like that for months, until the patient got a job out of town and had to stop seeing me. I referred her to an older, distinguished psychiatrist in her new city.

After several months I got a letter from her. After telling me how she was doing (better) she thanked me. She said, “I like Dr. X, but he’s not as helpful as you were. You really listened to me.” What a surprise! It turned out that just being there for her was a much bigger help than anything else.

It’s even harder when it’s your own child telling you how bad they are feeling. We want so much for them to be happy that it becomes tempting to try to help them out of their predicament by giving them advice. When we see them making the same mistakes we did at their age it can feel almost irresistible to try and intervene.

However, there are no shortcuts when it comes to growing up. Kids need to learn things for themselves, no matter how much you want to protect them. Suffering is part of life, whether we like it or not.

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Of course, there are times your child may seek out our advice and may even listen to it. Feel free to go ahead and have your say then. But more often our advice is unwanted, and it also conveys the unspoken message that we don’t think they are capable of figuring out how to fix their problems on their own. A brief, “I can understand why you feel that way” may go a long way to help, as little as it may seem so at the time.

And take that lesson to heart for yourself as well. It can be heartbreaking and anxiety-provoking to sit by and listen to your child go through the various traumas of being on his own. So don’t be too generous. Everyone has their limits and we can all experience empathy overload. That’s OK. In fact, it gives your child a role model for how a person sets limits on being there for others and there for themselves as well.

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