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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.
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
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.
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