Monday, August 9, 2010

Here, have some feelings

In yesterday's column, Carolyn Hax answers a daughter who asks for advice after overhearing her parents fight. The original letter states,

My parents are fighting more and more, and now in front of my brother and me (we're in our teens). When they are alone and fighting we can hear them, and I see my mom afterward and see that she has cried. I don't know what to say or do.

I believe my parents won't end up splitting because it has been a tough year for us, with my dad losing his job and then finding another. What can I do to help them, and what can I say to my parents after I have heard them fight?

 And the reply:
What you've said here is important for your parents to know... You don't have to launch into a big statement -- just "Mom, I hear you and dad fight, and I'm worried about you. I'm worried about us." If she's not ready to talk -- say, if she brushes you off with "Everything's fine" -- wait for a better opportunity, and say then that you'd like to talk to her. Approach your dad the same way. [...]

Sometimes you will have to do more for your family during tumultuous times -- tidying up, laundry -- and sometimes you will have to ask less of them. As tempting as it may be to try to help your parents, though, do watch carefully for the line between being transparent with them and disappearing into their mess. [...]

You (and your brother) are on the seam between childhood and adulthood. You can't stomp your feet and expect to be made whole, and you can't shoulder the kind of responsibility an adult can. [...]

In a way, this intensely personal strain you're feeling has a universal remedy: Be loving to others, be flexible in your expectations, be good to yourself. No matter what form the outcome takes, you will get through this, and so will they.
Usually, we agree with Carolyn, or at least see merit in her advice, but this is so completely alien to both of us that we have trouble even beginning to understand. Carolyn advises the girl to do more chores and altogether focus on making her life perfect so that she's not a burden on anyone in any way? How is this a good life lesson?

Lulu: I think putting pressure on yourself to help - even by doing extra chores and downplaying your own problems - is just the way to make yourself miserable. It won't help the situation in any appreciable way. If anything, it's enabling.

Ashley: Yeah, positively reinforcing the parents' negative behavior! If you really want them to stop fighting, you say, "If I can hear you fight, I do no chores that day. Kthxbye."

Lulu: Parenting the parents!

Ashley: Behavioral psychology, now for adults!

There is also an odd vacillation, frequently within the same paragraph, between treating the writer as a child and as an adult (and never, really, as a teenager). For example, Carolyn goes from:
When you're both ready, don't speak your mind so much as your feelings: "When you guys fight, I feel ... " sad/helpless/scared, whatever describes where you are.
Ashley: Because clearly the LW can't have an opinion about what's going on; she can only have feelings!
As tempting as it may be to try to help your parents, though, do watch carefully for the line between being transparent with them and disappearing into their mess.
Lulu: She's both talking down to teenagers and using emotional language I'm not sure they would understand.

Ashley: And Carolyn just drops that in as if it's intuitive (and to her, maybe it is, but I certainly don't expect a teenager to be able to do this with no guidance).

The feelings bit is another problem; there is little indication in the letter that the girl is actually distressed about the fighting. Mostly, she states that she doesn't know what to say/do, and this seems to be the source of the distress. As in, she's uncomfortable being in the situation, but she doesn't necessarily worry about the possible consequences or What It All Means. Carolyn reads a lot into those few lines; obviously, she probably has more information than we do, but from that letter, we would not necessarily assume the girl had so many feelings.

Ashley: I have trouble dealing with people who are fighting or otherwise having emotions in my presence. I can't deal with my mom crying at all! But it's not because I have particular feelings about it, it's because I'm socially inept. I'd love a script to follow beyond the, "You know I don't do this! Call your other daughter!" that I do right now...

The last problem may just sum up our overall concerns; Carolyn seems to be projecting a lot of her own personality into the response. That can't necessarily be helped (and we're undoubtedly doing the same), but usually she takes much better care not to assume other people react as she would.

So, what should the letter writer do?

Lulu: Basically, there IS nothing she can do, because you can't fix someone else's relationship. It will only hurt her if she lives and dies by how well the relationship is going.

Ashley: Yeah. I don't see why she should get involved at all. At some point, you have to realize that your parents are people in addition to being parents, and that people occasionally fight and do stupid things and make things unpleasant for people around them. And you have no control over their actions and decisions; whether they are your parents or not.

Lulu: I think I'd spend a lot of time at my friends' houses. Or pick up some school activities. Make the home situation just one part of her life.

Ashley: Yeah, less time being involved in family life is probably a good call, if only for college applications.


  1. "it ok, don't be cry." -- liz lemon

    yes, i am now going back and reading the whole damn blog. soon i will start emailing you my problems and asking for solutions.

  2. Yeah, I'll try that line on my mom. Although it'll lose something, since she won't understand that I'm speaking broken English. And if I speak in broken Russian, she'll just cry about THAT!

    Feel free to email us with problems! Real or imagined!