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Dear Christine: My Son Went Off to College and I Want to Cry

Dear Christine,

My oldest child is off to college. In the last few weeks, relatives have been offering him their sage “how to succeed in college” advice. Friends keep sending me an article from the New York Times offering advice to college freshmen: “Don’t take other people’s Adderall. Granola bars have a lot of sugar. The stamp goes in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope.” Really? All of this is entertaining, but isn’t it all too little too late? Isn’t the point that they’ve outgrown our advice?

Part of my grief about my son leaving home is that my advice no longer seems relevant. I want to help him as he makes this big transition to adulthood…and I also want to lay down and cry.

I’d love to know what you think.

Outgrown Mom

Dear Outgrown Mom,

Oh, how I feel your pain. Last weekend I dropped my daughter Fiona off for her first year at college. Here’s my advice to us both: Let yourself lay down and cry as often as you need to. Not because you’ve been outgrown; you haven’t. Your relationship with your son will grow into something new, something wonderful.

Let yourself cry because it’s sad to lose the daily physical presence of our children, and it’s exhausting and ineffective to stuff our emotions down. Change is hard. It’s normal to feel emotional in times like this. Our urge to give advice is just an attempt to keep the change at bay, an attempt to not feel the loss of our role in their lives as live-in advice-giver. It’s not that our children growing up and going off to college is a loss—that’s always been the plan, and it’s a tremendous privilege to go to college—but there is usually some grief for us parents. It’s okay to feel that.

Instead of numbing your grief with busyness, or social media, or work, or whatever your distraction of choice might be, this is a prime opportunity to practice letting yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling. This might seem unfun or counterintuitive—most people aren’t excited about the prospect of just lying down and crying. But if we don’t process our emotions, they tend to fester. And when we feel and acknowledge our feelings, they tend to dissipate.

Take a moment to identify an emotion that you are experiencing; there might be several. For example, you might feel relief as well as loss, because many high school graduates get pretty difficult before they leave home. (Being difficult is a way for them to separate from us parents; it makes it easier for our kids to leave. High school counselors call this “soiling the nest.”)

Pick one of the emotions you are feeling and see if you can objectify it: Where in your body does it live? Is it in the pit of your stomach? In your throat? What does it really feel like? Does it have a shape, or a texture, or a color?

The key here is to lean into our emotions, even if they are painful. Take a moment to be mindful and narrate: I’m feeling anxious and worried right now, or I feel so sad I could cry. Hang in there with unpleasant feelings at least long enough to acknowledge them.

One of the best ways to cope with a life-changing event such as this one is to move from labeling your emotions to truly accepting them, to surrendering all resistance to them. This is tricky because you may really, really, really not want to feel what you’re feeling, and you might only be doing this because I said earlier that emotions that are processed tend to dissipate.

It can be scary to expose ourselves to our strongest emotions. Take comfort from neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who teaches us that most emotions don’t last longer than 90 seconds. What you’ll probably find is that if you can sit still with a strong emotion and let yourself feel it, even the worst emotional pain rises, crests, breaks, and recedes like a wave on the surf.

This can be a really hard process, I know. Once you are able to let yourself feel what you feel, give yourself a pat on the back for demonstrating what Peter Bregman calls “emotional courage.”

There are loads of benefits to having this sort of emotional courage beyond getting through major life changes such as having a child go off to college. Emotional courage will enable you to have that difficult (but necessary!) conversation with your boss or your mother that you’ve been avoiding for months because you were worried about the emotional fallout. It’ll help you stop pretending to be someone that you really aren’t. With emotional courage, you’ll be better able to take calculated risks.

And you’ll be modeling for your new first-year college student the emotional courage that they are going to need to get through this first semester. When they call home weeping or homesick, you will be in a better place to help them lean into their difficult feelings, even if they are painful.

In all of this, remember that you have not been outgrown. If you have been a source of trusted advice for your son in the past, he will continue to look to you for your wisdom. And if he doesn’t ask you for advice as he makes his transition to adulthood, that is normal. Please know that your presence in his life as someone who can cope with challenging emotions and difficult transitions (his and your own) is guidance enough.

Yours,
Christine

In Dear Christine, I respond to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Christine: How Can I Get My Teenager to Listen to Me?

Dear Christine,

My daughter has a chronic health problem that we’ve been dealing with since she was almost three years old. Until very recently, I managed everything about her illness for her: appointments, medications, decision making around treatment, etc. She’s always been interested in learning more about her disease, and she’s been a compliant patient.

But now that she is a teenager, she needs to be more in charge of herself, and more involved in making decisions about her treatments. In some ways, she’s doing this well; for example, she gives herself a weekly injection.

I’m frustrated, though, because it seems like I can’t give her important information about her illness without eye-rolling and resistance. She needs more information than she currently has to make good decisions for herself. Right now, she wants to take herself off of a medication that makes her nauseous, and her doctor and I are worried that this is going to lead to more severe long-term health problems.

How can I influence my teenager? What used to work doesn’t seem to work anymore.

Signed,
Loving Mom Trying to Let Go

Dear Trying to Let Go,

I feel your pain. I find it really frustrating that I can’t just give my teenagers lots of (important!) information and expect that new information to translate to positive behavior. Even kids who don’t have a chronic disease don’t usually know what they don’t know about lots of things that will affect their health over the long run. It’d be much easier if we could just download information to them—say about sex and drugs, or about their health and wellness—and know that they were going to use that information well.

But, alas, as you and I know from experience, giving teenagers a lot of information doesn’t seem to be the key to influencing them. In fact, we know from some interesting research on this topic that what is somewhat effective for elementary school children—giving them information about their health that they can act on—tends to be mostly ineffective for teenagers.

This is because adolescents are much more sensitive to whether or not they are being treated with respect. The hormonal changes that come with puberty conspire with adolescent social dynamics to make teenagers much more attuned to social status. More specifically, they become super touchy about whether or not they are being treated as though they are high status.

In the teenage brain, the part of your daughter that is an autonomous young adult is high status. The part of her that is still a kid who needs your support is low status. Our teenagers might be half–independent young adult, half–little kid—but they are hugely motivated to become 100 percent autonomous. (Even if they do know, on some level, that they still need our support and guidance.)

So, when we give our adolescents a lot of information about an (important!) topic, especially when it is information that they don’t really want or that they think they already have, it can feel infantilizing to them. Even if we deliver the information as we would to another adult, the mere fact of our instruction can feel disrespectful to teenagers.

What is a smart parent (with loads of important information!) like yourself to do? I’ve gleaned three ideas from a related study by some of the smartest thinkers about teenagers: Ron Dahl, Carol Dweck, and David Yaeger.

1. Accord them high status from the get-go. Bring up the topic as you would to someone with the highest possible social status, someone you really, really respect. (I have to literally imagine that person in my head, and then imagine both the tone and the words I would use with that person.) Remember, if they feel disrespected, nagged, spoken down to, pressed upon, or infantilized at all, all bets are off.

The goal: Give them enough information that they can make their own informed decision, hopefully one that benefits their health and well-being in the long term, but do it in a way that allows them to feel respected and high status in the short term. They’ll need to feel competent, so it can help to point out all the ways that you see them as already very competent in this arena. What do you admire about them?

One way to convey your respect is to really listen well. Let this be a two-way conversation, not a lecture. Show your daughter that you are listening to her by reflecting back to her what she is saying (not what you wish she were saying).

Another way to convey respect is to demonstrate her value to a group of other teenagers. Are there other kids with the same chronic health issue that your daughter could help? Could you have her write a letter to someone else struggling with the same decision, outlining her situation and all that she knows about the decision she needs to make? This would help her engage in what researchers call “self-persuasion,” and it would make palpable the wisdom that she has to share and the way that she can help others.

2. Keep it short. You may have a mountain of information to impart, but research shows that less is more. Do not do what I often find myself doing in these situations: repeating myself. This can sound like nagging, and research shows that parental nagging activates anger-related regions in teenager’s brains, and it reduces activity in regions related to planning and behavior change.

I definitely talk too much. I learned this the hard way. I was trying to make an important point to one of my kids, and she didn’t seem to be getting it. I plowed on, with more examples. “Are you hearing me?” I finally asked. She looked up, eyes glazed over. “Yes,” she said. “I hear your words. So. Many. Words.”

So, use as few words as possible to make your point, and then shut up and watch for a response. Awkward silences are okay; often teens will want to fill the silence and in so doing will actually contribute to the conversation.

3. Let them be in control of both the conversation and the actions they take following the conversation. Do not, under pain of death, tell teenagers what to do. When it comes to conversations about their own health, invite them to discover what the information means for their lives.

So instead of sitting your daughter down for a Big Talk using a tone that suggests you are going to decide the course of her treatment, wade in sloooowly. Raise the issue you’d like to discuss from a couple of very different angles. For example: “Do you want to talk about what it is like when you feel nauseous at school?” or “Do you want to talk about what the risks and benefits are of going off of your medication?” Ron Dahl recommends that we always also throw in a super-open-ended question like, “Or maybe there is something else you would rather discuss? What do you think?”

If they say they don’t want to talk, let it go temporarily. Force never works, but persistence does.

As parents I think we often forget that teenagers are motivated by totally different things than we are. We want them to do the things that are best for their health and well-being; they want to do the things that bestow on them the highest social status. But we are most influential when we are able to take advantage of teens’ existing motivations, rather than trying to get them to feel motivated by our goals.

Fortunately, our motivations tend to turn out to be aligned already: Our adolescents want to feel like competent, well-respected, autonomous adults. And, in the end, we want our children to be competent, autonomous adults who make choices we respect and admire. Decisions like the one your daughter has ahead of her are a bridge between how she wants to feel and the young woman she is becoming. Though she may not see it right now, she is so lucky to have you walking across that bridge beside—or perhaps a touch behind—her.

Yours,
Christine

Dear Christine: How Can I Get More Sleep?

Hi Christine,

I have a habit of going to bed later than I want and then being rushed in the morning and getting to work late. For several years now, I’ve been wanting to get to bed earlier, but I can’t seem to do it.

I have a tendency to feel pretty driven and busy during the day, and the evening feels like my only time to relax. I binge-watch Netflix, scroll through my social media and news alerts, and generally get caught doing random things on my phone until late at night. But when I think about going to bed early, I feel kind of deprived. I think I actually do need time to wind down and take a break before I go to sleep, even when I’m totally exhausted.

I would like to try again to go to bed earlier, but I feel a little nervous about it because I’ve made that resolution before and not been successful quite a few times.

Thanks,
Tired and Running Late

Dear Tired and Running Late,

I hear you on all fronts. Who hasn’t resolved to get to bed earlier, only to find themselves going to bed late night after night? I think most people these days have experienced the same frustration (if not with sleep, then with another resolution). It’s very discouraging to try to do things differently, only to find ourselves falling back into old patterns.

Though frustrating, it’s normal to struggle to change our daily routines. Research suggests that 88 percent of people have failed to stick to their resolutions to change; we humans are creatures of habit. Our brains crave routine and resist change.

So how do we change our habits?

Going to bed earlier is a realistic and worthy goal—one that will have very real benefits for you in your busy life. To do so, however, you will do well to change your thoughts before you try to change your habits.

For starters, I’m guessing that the reason you feel nervous about trying to do this again is that failing to keep your resolutions in the past has been stressful. This is normal, but we usually aren’t successful at changing our habits when we’re anxious about it.

Failing at our resolutions is more stressful when we opt for self-flagellation in the face of our setbacks or lapses. We tend to think that if we’re really hard on ourselves, we’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or we’ll motivate ourselves towards better performance in the future. Admitting our failings does not need to come with commensurate self-criticism, however.

Why? Because self-criticism doesn’t work. It’s stressful, and it doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and future improvement.

Self-compassion—being warm and supportive towards ourselves, and actively soothing ourselves—does help when we fall short of our intentions or our goals. It leads to less anxiety, less depression, and greater peace of mind—and, importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.

So, the first step to making lasting change is to simply forgive yourself for having failed in the past. It’s okay; it’s normal, even. You did the best you could with the skills you had. Take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a really good friend: Use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response. Remind yourself that few people are successful the first time they try to change their routines, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.

The next step is to figure out what’s holding you back.

This may be blazingly obvious, but in order to do better tomorrow, you’ll need to know what is causing you to go to bed later than you are intending to.

You’ve already identified a major obstacle to getting to bed at a reasonable hour: You don’t relax during the day, and so you need time to unwind at night. This is likely more of an identity obstacle than a practical one. By that I mean that I doubt there is an actual, physical obstacle that is keeping you from unwinding earlier in the day or evening. Instead, I’m guessing that there is something that you believe (maybe about yourself, or about your success) that’s holding you back.

A chart of how beliefs influence emotions then behaviors then routines

Our beliefs really matter when it comes to our behavior. Our thoughts—about ourselves, other people, our circumstances—and the meaning we attribute to our world tend to trigger our emotions, and our emotions are often the motivation for our behavior. Our actions, when repeated, become habits.

And what we do repeatedly tends to add up to our accomplishments. Our outcomes are usually often lagging measures of our habits. You’re tired and running late (outcomes) because of your habit of going to bed late. Feeling deprived of rest led you to stay up late. What beliefs do you hold that keep you from taking breaks during the day? When we get back to our identity, we can see how much what we believe about ourselves can influence our habits. For example, you mention that you are busy and driven. These are beliefs about yourself common to many ambitious people these days.

I relate totally. Until a few years ago, every time someone would ask me how I was doing, I would always give the same answer: I am so busy. Extremely busy. Crazy busy. Busy and important. As such, I was always running late, white knuckling it through an over-packed day.

I wore my exhaustion like a trophy, as a sign of my strength and a mark of my character. At one point, for example, I ran a half-marathon with a fever, not wanting to disappoint my family who’d driven five hours to support me. The busier I was, the more important I felt.

I held a common mistaken belief: that busyness is a marker of importance, of character, of economic security. And I believed the reverse, as well: If we aren’t busy, we lack importance. We’re insignificant. We’re under-achieving. We’re weak. Un-busy people are lazy, and they are missing out.

Part of my identity included a constellation of thoughts, beliefs, and values about busyness that triggered emotions (feelings of importance, significance), which motivated behaviors (not resting—running with a fever). Over time, staying busy all the time and never resting became a habit, and it really affected my outcomes: Eventually, my body broke down. I got really, really sick, again and again—and this forced me to rest. It also caused me to change my beliefs about myself, and my success.

Behavior that conflicts with our identity doesn’t last. As long as I believed that my busyness was a sign of my productivity and the source of my success, even the idea of resting created a vague anxiety that I was possibly about to fail at something—or that I was about to miss an important email or opportunity.

In order to finally change, it wasn’t that I had to try harder to sleep more, or that I needed more willpower or self-discipline to rest when I was tired, injured, or sick. It was that I needed to change my beliefs about myself, and about my success.

The more deeply something is tied to our identity, the harder it is to change it. By the same token, the more a new behavior is aligned with our beliefs about ourselves, the more likely it is that we’ll adopt it.

Just as I had to upgrade the part of my identity that was keeping me in a continual state of busyness and exhaustion, I suspect you do, too, Tired and Running Late. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that feeling busy and tired isn’t contributing to your success. At all.

In fact, you can probably already see how getting enough sleep, not rushing in the morning, and getting to work on time are better bets than busyness and exhaustion. Can you take the part of your identity that feels driven during the day and upgrade that from “busy and driven” to “relaxed, focused, and productive,” or something like that?

And then dig into your beliefs about what leads to productivity and focus. I can tell you with certainty that never resting and not taking breaks throughout the day will not help you do your best work, get a lot done, or stay focused when you need to be.

Plenty of research has shown that taking breaks, even brief ones, dramatically improves our performance and productivity. When we don’t take breaks, our focus and the quality of our work usually suffers. But when we do rest throughout the day, we can work for much longer without the quality of our work, or our focus, suffering.

Your mission then, should you choose to accept it, is to take breaks throughout the day. Take a proper lunch break. Go for a short walk between meetings at work. When you get home from work, don’t immediately jump into the next activity—wind down a little. Read a book. Watch a 20-minute sitcom. Call a friend.

Try taking as many breaks as you need to take so that you don’t feel deprived of rest at bedtime.

Do this as an experiment, and record how much you get done and how well you do it. Gather evidence that you are relaxed, focused, and productive—or whatever your upgraded identity is—throughout the day. Note it if you experience greater feelings of relaxation, or more focus. Relish it if you take time to relax before it’s time for bed.

Above all, enjoy the heck out of your breaks. Don’t plan them, don’t worry about them—just let yourself take them. All you need to do is show up, and a little added rest will work its magic on your life. And do let me know how it’s going. I’m hoping, Tired and Running Late, that you’ll soon be signing off as Relaxed, Focused, and Productive.

Yours,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Sign up for Christine’s monthly email list (that’s right: it’s only one email per month) to receive notifications of new columns. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Christine How Can I help my stressed-out teen?

Dear Christine: How Can I Help My Stressed-Out Teenager?

Dear Christine,

I know you have teenage daughters around the same age, so I’m hoping you have some insight about how to help kids deal with stress. My youngest daughter has always been confident, gregarious, and goal-oriented. But starting in her sophomore year in high school, she’s not been herself. She’s stressed and bitchy with us, and suffers from general malaise. She’s had a lot of stomachaches and headaches and was even experiencing hair loss, so we took her to the pediatrician and then a specialist to make sure she didn’t have an underlying medical problem. She doesn’t. The doctors say her symptoms are due to stress.

As a family, we try to keep things mellow, upbeat, and relaxed. We don’t put pressure on her to perform or achieve. She goes to therapy, and we are in close contact with her doctors. But, still, she is not herself. I understand that she cares a lot about her grades and schoolwork, but to be totally honest, I’m not really sure what she’s so stressed about.

How can I get my daughter back?

Thank you,
Pulling Out My Own Hair

Dear Hair-Puller,

Your daughter is not alone. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that fewer than half of her generation would rate their own mental health as “excellent” or “very good.” And it doesn’t seem to get better as they get older; more than 90 percent of today’s 18 to 21 year olds experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the past month (this is very high compared to other adults). In addition to the physical symptoms your daughter is experiencing, other common symptoms of stress include feeling depressed or sad, showing a lack of interest in school or their daily lives, lacking motivation or energy, and feeling nervous or anxious.

What seems to be new about today’s teenagers is that they aren’t just stressed about what’s going on at home or at school or in their own lives—they’re stressed about the world they are living in. For example, three quarters say they are stressed about mass and school shootings. More than half feel stressed about the current political climate, and more than two-thirds feel significantly stressed about our nation’s future. About 60 percent are worried about the rise in suicide rates, about climate change and global warming, and about the separation and deportation of immigrant and migrant families. The list goes on and on and on.

It’s no wonder that our teens are suffering. Fortunately, there is a lot that we can do for our stressed-out teens. You’ve already done a couple of important things: You’ve taken your daughter to the doctor and gotten her into therapy. Professional help is always a great place to start.

What else can we do? I’ve taken a lot of advice on this topic from Lisa Damour, who has a relevant new book out called Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. If you are looking for a comprehensive guide to helping girls cope with stress, this book is the best one I’ve read. Here are three steps to helping teens cope.

1. First, just listen

Ask them to describe the difficult circumstance that is stressing them out. Maybe it is a problematic friendship; perhaps they didn’t make a team they really wanted to be on.

At this stage, acknowledge that their difficulties are real—even if they sorta seem dramatic or overblown or irrational. The key is not to deny what they are going through and how it is making them feel (e.g., by saying something like, “But you have so many friends!” when they say that they are lonely). Instead, have them simply give you the facts of the hard place they are in, and, in response, show calm curiosity about their experience. The goal is not to take away their pain. The goal is for them to feel seen and heard by you.

Second, help them identify how they are feeling in response to the stressor. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I feel stressed and nervous.” This is the “name it to tame it” technique; research shows that when we label our emotions, we are better able to integrate them. If they start telling you a story that is making them more emotional, gently bring them back to what they are feeling. The task here is to identify WHAT they are feeling, not necessarily WHY they are feeling that way. This can be hard; we get attached to our narratives about why we are upset. It’s usually easier to stick to our story than it is to reveal how we are feeling. But again, the task here is to talk about the actual emotions, not the reasons for the emotions.

See if you can sum up their stressful experience or circumstance (the facts, not the story) and their feelings about the circumstance in a simple phrase or two. For example, “You didn’t know how to solve five questions on your math test today, and you are feeling really scared that your grade is going to drop in that class.” Throw in a little empathy if you feel like you need to say something else: “That’s so hard. I can remember some very difficult math tests when I was in high school, too. It’s awful.”

Again: Resist the urge to give advice, make suggestions for how they can fix the problem, or offer platitudes like “This too shall pass.” You do not need to offer reassurance. Really. Right now, teens need to feel heard, and if you say something along the lines of “Everything will be okay” or offer specific reassurance like “Even if you fail the test, you’ll still probably have an A- average,” they’ll notice that you’ve missed the main thing they are trying to communicate, which is that they are very stressed out.

The other goal here is to show them that you are not anxious about their anxiety; you accept it. This helps them drop their resistance to the stressor. Why? Because resisting the current reality doesn’t help us recover, learn, grow, or feel better—it just amplifies the difficult emotions we are feeling. There is real truth to the old aphorism that what we resist persists; weirdly, resistance prolongs our pain and difficulty.

The more our kids resist reality, the more likely it is that they will start showing signs of a dysregulated stress response. In other words, when kids aren’t managing stressful or difficult situations effectively, they tend to start having larger and larger stress responses to smaller and smaller stimuli.

2. Encourage them to diagnose their stress

Damour’s stance is that we parents are most useful to our teenagers when we help them ask themselves: “What is the source of my stress?” and “Why am I anxious?” It might be obvious to you what is going on; the task here isn’t to hand them a diagnosis but, rather, to help them see for themselves what is going on more clearly.

It can help to let kids know what stresses most people out. Sonia Lupien at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress has a convenient acronym for what makes life stressful: NUTS.

Novelty
Unpredictability
Threat to the ego
Sense of control

We can help our kids identify causes of stress by looking for what might be new or changing in their life; looking for sources of unpredictability; identifying ways that their competence or safety is being threatened; and asking about the things in their lives that feel out of their control.

In addition to searching for sources of stress, it can be helpful for teens to classify the particular strain of stress they are experiencing: Is it related to a negative life event? Is it the result of cumulative day-to-day difficulties that are beyond the teen’s control?

Life-event stressors are things like the death of a loved one, or changing schools, or dealing with your parent’s divorce. The more change a life event requires a teen to make, the more stressful it will tend to be.

Chronic stress is when “basic life circumstances are persistently difficult,” according to Damour. Chronic stress is caused by things like living in poverty or living with a severely depressed parent, or having a chronic illness like cancer. I also suspect that many of today’s teens are experiencing a form of chronic stress caused by current events—global warming, rising suicide rates, mass shootings, etc. And social media is a source of chronic stress for many teens; nearly half say social media makes them feel judged, and more than a third report feeling bad about themselves as a result of social media use.

Surprisingly, one study found that the number of daily hassles a teen faces can predict their emotional distress over time, and that daily hassles have a greater impact on teens’ well-being than other types of stress. Daily hassles are often related to negative life events and chronic stressors, of course—a death in the family, for example, can create a mountain of hassle.

Surprisingly, daily hassles tend to be more distressing for teens than negative life events or chronic stress. Knowing this, often we can help kids solve some of their daily hassles, even if we can’t change their circumstances.

For example, last year one of my teenage daughters was going through a really hard time at school socially, and she was having some minor but persistent health problems. She also had a daily hassle: getting home from school. She had to walk 1.2 miles to her bus stop, and she was often waiting, sometimes in the rain, for 40 minutes or more for the bus to come. This was precious homework time. She was super stressed and having a hard time keeping up in her classes. I couldn’t ease her social pain or fix her health (both chronic stressors), but we eliminated the daily hassle of getting her home from school—the straw that was breaking the camel’s back—by creating a carpool.

3. Finally, help them see where their stress is healthy

It can help teens to teach them the difference between stress and anxiety. Stress, according to Damour, is the tension or strain we feel when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. Stress is healthy and helpful when it creates enough tension and strain to foster growth.

Think of a muscle that is stressed by weight training: It tenses up and even breaks down a little. The weight might be very hard to lift, and the muscle might be sore afterwards. But the stress of a heavy weight—so long as it isn’t so heavy it causes a significant injury—strengthens the muscle.

Stress can work the same way. School is supposed to be stressful in this way. A mountain of research shows that we learn and grow when we are out of our comfort zone—when we are exposed to novel challenges. Stress can act like a vaccine for future stress (researchers call this “stress inoculation.”) People who are able to weather stressful circumstances frequently go on to demonstrate above-average resilience.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is the fear and dread and panic that can come up for us in the face of a stressor (or even just the mere thought of a stressor).

Sometimes anxiety is an important warning system that we are in danger. It’s appropriate for us to feel anxious when we are a riding in a car where the driver is texting, for example. Legitimate anxiety makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. I once had a really nice-seeming neighbor who scared the bejeezus out of me. Every time he’d stop to chat, friendly and normal-seeming as he was, the hair on my neck would stand up, and my heart would start racing and thudding in my chest. It was all I could do to not run and hide from him. It turns out that my anxiety was legitimate: I later found out that he had spent a decade in a maximum-security prison for violent sex crimes.

And sometimes anxiety is more about excitement than it is a sign of danger. As Maria Shriver writes in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring . . . part of your agitation is just excitement about what you’re getting ready to accomplish. Whatever you’re afraid of—that is the very thing you should try to do.”

But more often than not, our anxiety isn’t helpful. Unhelpful anxiety makes us hesitate rather than bolt. We are afraid of looking stupid, and so we don’t ask a burning question. We fear failing, and so we don’t even try.

We can help our teens figure out whether they are experiencing legitimate anxiety or unhelpful anxiety. Do they have the desire to get the heck out of whatever situation is making them anxious and afraid? If so, their anxiety is likely legitimate. We can support them in getting out of that dangerous situation.

But if their anxiety is making them hesitate, help them consider that their anxiety is unfounded—and that it is holding them back.

All of this requires trust, Hair-Puller. Trust that if our teens are still here, still breathing, everything is actually okay. Trust that even if we don’t immediately fix everything, life will continue to unfold just as it’s meant to. Trust that even if it all goes to hell, even if other people make mistakes or do things differently than we would do them, our kids can deal with the outcome. Trust that they (and we) can handle all the difficult emotions that come up in response to what does or does not happen.

When we accept the reality of a stressful or scary situation and our limited control, it allows our kids to do the same. Importantly, our acceptance also frees them up to move forward, rather than remaining paralyzed by stress and anxiety.

Yours,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life.
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Substance Abuse Photo by Hayes Potter on Unsplash

Dear Christine: How Do I Deal with My Son’s Substance Abuse?

Concerned parents confront the fact that their son may be addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Dear Christine,

We are writing you about our son, who is in his second year of undergraduate study. He has found his niche in the Greek system, and it is something he is passionate about. He loves the people and the camaraderie.

What is worrisome to us is that along with his entrance into the Greek system, his use of drugs and alcohol has grown. His marijuana and drinking habits, which had been somewhat frequent in high school, have become significantly more pronounced. While he has been away much of the time since he began college, when he is back at home, his unhappiness seems intense and he seems to only be able to get in a good mood when he has had something to drink or smoke, which is often. He also avoids interaction with people by spending time on screens.

We have always tried to be supportive parents, and had felt that over the long arc of his life he appeared to be growing into a fine person, and that he does have a lot of good qualities. But we are now faced with the fact that he may have a real substance abuse issue, and is heading down a dangerous path.

Please advise.

The Concerned Parents of a College Student

Dear Concerned Parents,

I want to commend you for the reflection that you’ve done and your willingness to see that your son has a problem. I reached out to Richard Ryan, a very well-respected adolescent drug and alcohol educator and professional interventionist, to help me answer your question. The first thing Richard said was that he believes your willingness to see your son’s issue is going to help him.

Richard also said that while in many ways your son sounds like many other young men his age, there are several things about his drug and alcohol use that set him apart.

Like many college students, your son has found a place in the Greek system, which is filled with shared rituals, intrigue, and bonding. By formally extending and promoting adolescent behavior, fraternity culture provides relief to students who are finding the transition to adulthood daunting. Fraternity brothers can often hide from their growing responsibilities in the midst of their fraternity’s rituals and traditions.

Frequent use of drugs and alcohol is usually a significant part of Greek culture. A Harvard University study reported that four out of five fraternity and sorority members binge drink. By comparison, two out of five college students overall are regular binge drinkers. Because of this, fraternity members, particularly those who are white and under 25, are at the highest risk among college students for developing a substance abuse problem.

Unfortunately, substance abuse problems that develop in college often persist after graduation. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, close to half of fraternity members report symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD, or what we commonly think of as alcoholism) at age 35. Research has also shown that fraternity and sorority members tend to have a significantly higher prevalence of marijuana use into their mid 30s.

Fraternities typically expect members to consume huge amounts of alcohol in drinking “bouts,” or contests that encourage rapid and excessive consumption. “These bouts,” Richard wrote, “are a recipe for a disaster.” About 5,000 college students die from unintentional alcohol-related injuries each year.

So, your son is not alone in his drinking and drug use.

Richard also pointed out several significant differences in your son’s behavior that are a cause for concern. The most notable difference is your son’s change in demeanor, even when he has very little alcohol or marijuana in his system. It’s of particular concern, Richard wrote, that the changes in his mood and personality are profound and sudden. “It may well be indicative that your son has an Alcohol Use Disorder and Substance Use Disorder.”

Another sign, according to Richard, is that you date his drinking and marijuana use to his high school years. Much research indicates that the earlier the age at which an individual consciously chooses to use a substance to change how they feel, the greater their risk of becoming attached, both emotionally and physiologically. Those who have such experiences at the age of fifteen and younger have a considerably higher risk of forming an addiction or dependency than those who wait until they are in their late teens and early twenties.

Richard noted that it’s particularly troubling that your son only seems to be in a good mood when he is using alcohol and marijuana. This suggests that he is unable to experience happiness unless he is high, and that his sense of well-being and emotional stability relies on being in an altered state.

Richard explained that dependency is being “addicted to the process of a mood change.” Any activity—gaming, sex, gambling, social media, drinking, using drugs—that causes significant changes in mood can be addicting.

What we think of as addiction, then, has two very distinct but overlapping aspects: Addiction is the physiological attachment, while dependency denotes the emotional, mental, and sensory attachment. Richard made it clear that dependency is far more complex and more challenging to ameliorate than physiological addiction.

Your son clearly demonstrates all the signs of dependency. I know that’s so hard to read. It would be understandable if you didn’t want to believe it. But you had the courage to ask for advice in the first place, and so I believe that you are also brave enough to get your son through this.

So where can you go from here?

1. Talk to him about your concerns. Although it often might not seem like it, parents still have a lot of influence on their older teens. Parents of teens who have just started to use drugs or alcohol might be able to curb their teens’ use by talking with them—motivational interviewing can work well for these sorts of conversations.

Your son, however, is probably dependent enough that he will likely defend his addictions by becoming angry and lashing out at you. You’ll need to decide together as co-parents how you’ll respond; it’s important for you to be a united front right now. And if he surprises you and asks for help, be prepared to take him to an addiction counselor right away, the same day, if possible (see below).

“Although it often might not seem like it, parents still have a lot of influence on their older teens”

―Christine Carter

2. Get some help right away. An evaluation by a clinician who is well-versed in addictions can provide your family and your son with a clear path forward. Most family practice doctors and therapists are actually not equipped to address dependency, so Richard emphasized the importance of finding a licensed psychologist or licensed social worker who specializes in addictive disorders to work with your son.

You’ll likely want to consider doing an intervention with the help of a professional interventionist like Richard Ryan. Interventions are planned, practiced, and structured conversations that are designed to help break through denial and get college students with addictions into treatment. Most colleges and universities have developed campus recovery programs, and some even offer “sober living environments” as part of their programs. These programs are especially helpful as a follow-up for those who have been treated for their addictions and dependencies.

Time is of the essence. Many people would be tempted, I’d think, to wait until their son comes home for a little while or even until he graduates from college and is free from the influence of the fraternity. If he’s doing well academically, it might be tempting to see that as a sign that he’s okay. But we know that many people can be highly functional in their alcoholism; that doesn’t mean that they are happy or fulfilled. It would be better for your son’s long-term emotional well-being to break the cycle of dependency now rather than later.

3. Stop enabling his drinking and drug use. Parents often unintentionally send kids a mixed message about their expectations by providing or allowing substance use at home, or by funding kids’ participation in drug- and alcohol-fueled experiences like fraternities and sororities. In some families, these represent longstanding traditions. But just because something is an old tradition does not mean that it is a good thing for a particular college student. The world is radically different now than it was just one generation ago, and it’s hugely important that we parents not normalize self-harm.

As parents, we can do our best to set up speed bumps to college students’ risky behaviors. Money, or lack thereof, can be a fantastic speed bump. Your son will continue to make his own choices about how he socializes and what substances he uses, but that doesn’t mean that you have to pay for the choices you don’t agree with. If he wants to spend his hard-earned minimum wage dollars on weed, alcohol, and the fraternity fees, that’s his call. But as his parents you can send a crystal-clear message about your concerns and your hopes for your son by choosing not to fund participation in a fraternity that fuels his alcohol and marijuana dependencies.

Not-enabling might require an extra dose of empathy for your son—and self-compassion for yourselves. It will be very hard for him to have funds for the fraternity taken away, for example; you’d be choosing not to support a core part of his identity and the primary source of his pleasure. You can accept that it will be hard, even painful, for him to feel as left out as he likely will. It’s likely that his pain will also be very painful for you.

Remember: You’re strong enough to handle it, and so is he.

Yours,
Christine Carter, with Richard Ryan

Special thanks to Richard Ryan, M.A., for co-writing this with me.

Dear Christine: Should I See a Therapist?

A member of the Sandwich Generation struggles with feeling overwhelmed, sad, and stuck.

Dear Christine,

My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago, just before I got pregnant with my second daughter. I was fortunate to have a stellar short-term therapist available through a pregnancy program at work to help me come to grips with my mom’s diagnosis.

When the pregnancy program ended, my therapist suggested that I find a long-term therapist to help me deal with my mother’s inevitable deterioration while trying to raise two very young children. Since then, I have been ignoring “find another therapist” on my to-do list. I’ve been telling myself that it’s not urgent compared to my career goals, my children, and the big wonderful life that I’m trying to live.

My mom’s disease has progressed very rapidly. She went from having repetitive conversations and needing some reminders to being really upset about not recognizing me. She cries and says she left me somewhere (like I am still a baby) and then looks at me suspiciously as if I am an intruder. It’s a lot to take, and I’m not coping with it well.

I don’t have clinical depression or anxiety, but I know I should probably still find a therapist. But I feel stuck and exhausted, and I don’t want to go through opening up to a new person. So, I have sat on my old therapist’s recommendation to find someone new for nearly a year now.

I really hate feeling like I’m behind in the game. I know I have to get a therapist, but I keep having thoughts about how I can maybe just handle this if I return to journaling more, or to so-and-so thing that has helped me before.

Christine Carter, I’m certain you have a worksheet for me on this. I’m flying in circles here. What will it take to get me to start therapy or figure out my next step? Maybe it’s not the kind of therapy I’m fixated on?

Please give me a little direction.

Sad and Circling

Dear Sad and Circling,

Your email reminded me of a favorite Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You don’t have to do everything well right now. You certainly don’t have to do this thing perfectly. You don’t even have to be happy during this hard—and amazing—life stage. You are not “behind” at anything; you are not losing the game. As you said yourself, you are living a big wonderful life.

You certainly don’t have to find a therapist right now, so please stop “shoulding” on yourself. Things are hard enough; don’t make it harder by thinking you are falling short. You are showing up for your family and your job and yourself. That’s enough.

Having babies is hard. Finding a balance between work and a young family is hard. And having a parent with Alzheimer’s is so, so, so hard.

Things are hard enough; don’t make it harder by thinking you are falling short. You are showing up for your family and your job and yourself. That’s enough. Click To Tweet

Suddenly, the mother you knew and loved is mostly gone, and in her place is someone who doesn’t recognize the most important facets of her own life. You’ve been sucker-punched in the gut. Of course you are surprised. You got the wind knocked out of you.

It’s normal to feel sad in the face of such loss. That’s grief. In addition to feeling sad, you’re probably experiencing a cornucopia of hard feelings, like yearning, anger, and regret. These challenging emotions are not to be confused with mental illness, or a depression that will require treatment for you to heal.

One “treatment” for grieving is to feel sad, and to feel safe feeling sad. To feel connected and held in your sadness. This takes time and will often be very inconvenient.

But it’s so important. You mention that journaling has helped you in the past. Why not start there? Like therapy, expressive writing is a science-backed way to cope with difficulty. Research has long shown that people who journal about difficult or traumatic experiences tend to report greater happiness months later. (I love this Science of Happiness podcast episode about expressive writing.)

You might also, at some point, choose to find a new therapist to help you find your way through this, but you don’t have to do that right now. Research shows that therapy tends to help us for three reasons; knowing what those things are might help you decide on your next move.

  1. Therapists provide us with emotional support. Like a trusted friend, they provide us with empathy, reassurance, and a decreased sense of isolation. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” writes Oliver in Wild Geese.
  2. A wise therapist can help us learn about ourselves, providing insight, advice, feedback and ways to reframe what is distressing for us.
  3. Finally, therapists can engage us in what the researchers call “action factors”—basically exercises and plans that help us feel better.

When all three of these factors are present for someone in therapy, people tend to feel more safe and secure, and their anxiety tends to recede. Being less stressed, in turn, allows for greater self-awareness, and promotes their ability to confront fears and implement desired behavior changes.

It’s going to be very hard for you to do emotionally difficult things right now, like open up to a new therapist, on top of all the emotionally difficult stuff you are already dealing with. But you can do hard things. Especially if you want to do them.

Whether you decide to find a therapist or not, you will likely continue to feel sad. But maybe you can experience that feeling of “flying in circles” differently. I don’t think you are stuck; you probably aren’t even circling. But you are in flight.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It’s not going to be easy, but you’ve got this thing.

Yours,
Christine

 

 


Dear Christine is Greater Good’s advice column, where sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

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Dear Christine: How to Cope with an Ungrateful Spouse

How do you deal with a partner who doesn’t seem to appreciate all you do?


Dear Christine,

I’ve been happily married for over 15 years, and we have four beautiful children. We’re both flawed in our own special ways, but I keep coming back to the same issue with my husband: He doesn’t appreciate all I do for him.

I know running a household is a thankless job, but I could use a little thanks every once in a while. I work part-time and run the show at home for the whole gang, including for my husband. I often find myself doing things to help him feel happier and healthier—and anticipating and mitigating situations that have made him feel unhappy in the past. He has his strengths, and his charms, but he is not a low-maintenance guy.

My husband recently started a ketogenic diet as a way to feel better physically and improve his mood. Since I know it’s a big change for him, I decided I’d do it along with him so that I could help identify and prepare the foods that he can eat. I’ve been lovingly researching, shopping for, and cooking very low-carb foods so that he can achieve his goals. Last night, I even baked a loaf of no-carb bread.

My efforts have been met with complaints about the “stupid diet” rather than gratitude. My 11-year-old son was so put off by his dad’s behavior that he actually pointed it out to his dad.

In our big moments, my husband shares deep gratitude for me and all that I do, but I can’t help but feel these smaller, more common exchanges as slights and that they are damaging our relationship. I know I can’t change him, and that trying to do so is a fool’s errand. But I can’t help wanting what I think I deserve.

Do you have any advice for me?
Keto Mom and Resenting It


Dear Keto Mom,

Can you feel the legions of hardworking, nurturing, and resentful wives wanting a little gratitude alongside you? I sure can; I’ve been there myself.

We expect that our husbands will not take us for granted, and it hurts when they do. Research shows that when we express gratitude in our relationships, we become more attuned to our spouse’s efforts on our behalf. I understand why you are hoping for a little more attunement to all the work you do to “run the show” in your household, why you expect a little appreciation. Even your 11-year-old son agrees that you are entitled to a little thanks.

But feeling entitled to gratitude is tricky, because entitlement is the opposite of gratitude—and rarely do we attract the opposite of what we feel. Just as your husband isn’t fostering your affection by complaining about the food you’ve worked to prepare for him, your entitlement (and the resulting resentment) won’t likely generate his appreciation.

Since you can’t change your husband—as you note, trying to change a grown man is a fool’s errand, not because they don’t change but because we can’t force change in other people—you’ll have to change yourself.

How? Does that mean just giving up? Well, in a sense—yes. My best advice is to stop doing what puts him in the camp of owing you. Step out of the “If I do X for you, then you owe me Y,” where Y is a certain dose of gratitude. (Or maybe gratitude and a foot rub.)

Specifically, stop mothering him. If he wants to put himself on one of the most restrictive and challenging diets out there, he can do that. You can applaud his desire to be happier and healthier. You can support him emotionally. You can even support him practically, by preparing the right foods—if he asks you for your help, and if you really, really in your heart of hearts want to do it for him, because you will enjoy helping him.

But you can’t do the diet for him in the way that you would with, say, a diabetic toddler. Your husband is old enough to do his own research and make his own grocery lists. If he needs help with the shopping and cooking, let him ask you for specific favors. Decide on an individual basis which tasks you want to help him with. Don’t do any that will make you feel put out or burdened.

If you’d like to join him in taking on a ketogenic diet for your own health, or maybe because you think it would be a bonding thing to do with your strong and charming husband, you can, of course, choose to do that. Let me say that again: You can choose to do the diet, too, and to support him in it—but you don’t have to.

It’s important for you both that you understand that you are not obligated to take on his keto project—a major undertaking—along with your job and being the primary caregiver for your four kids. You are not trapped in a role you didn’t choose. You are not a victim to his dieting whims, or his bad moods, or his health problems. As such, he doesn’t owe you gratitude.

It would be nice if he were grateful, of course. But I suspect he doesn’t feel grateful in part because that would make him feel beholden to you, maybe even a little infantilized. When you take over his diet, it robs him of his sense of control over his own health and his mood. With you at the helm, if he’s successful at the diet, on some level he’ll have to give you credit for it.

This is tricky. Sometimes, when we overhelp people, we unconsciously send them the message that we believe that they can’t do it without us. This can make them feel criticized, or like they need fixing, and that can hurt. People don’t tend to appreciate it when their spouses (or friends or parents or children) don’t accept them as they are.

But to us, it can feel good to help the people around us whom we see as needing help. Supporting others, even when we don’t really want to, makes us feel like good people. Helping, especially when we haven’t really been invited to help, gives us a false sense of power, and it can distract us from our own problems. This is why Annie Lamott says that “help is the sunny side of control.”

Moreover: “Helping” your husband when you expect something in return, even if all you expect is gratitude, makes your marriage more transactional than romantic. Most people today find transactional marriages inherently unsatisfying. They’re the stuff of martyrs, the story of happiness thwarted by involuntary self-sacrifice.

Fortunately, you can still aid Keto Dad in his quest for health and happiness by supporting the three basic psychological needs related to self-motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Support his autonomy by letting him retain control over his diet. Show him that you see him as fully capable of making his own choices and solving his own problems. Ask him questions that help him build a vision for success and that help him focus on what he does want, not what he doesn’t. What does success look like? How is he hoping to feel? And what will he need to do to succeed? Where will he need to ask for the help of others?

You can encourage his competence by helping him build the skills he needs—as I’m sure you’ve discovered, a ketogenic diet requires a high degree of knowledge about macronutrients, and a lot of meal planning and cooking. Does he want you to teach him what you’ve learned? Share the recipes or websites you’ve found helpful? No? Then don’t worry about it.

Finally, you can foster relatedness by getting your kids and other family members involved. How can you make it fun to do together? Maybe your family simply enjoys the food he cooks, or perhaps you set up a cooking “date night” with him. Or maybe you want to start some sort of “keto challenge” in your extended family if there are others who share his goals.

The most loving and constructive thing you can do might simply be to root for Keto Dad from the sidelines. If you do nothing else, don’t forget to celebrate his successes—perhaps with a ketogenic flourless chocolate cake.

Yours,

Christine


Dear Christine is Greater Good’s advice column, where sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

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