Carolyn Hax: Parent feels anxious after adult daughter’s calls

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Hello, Carolyn! Our adult daughter, 28, doesn’t call us often, but often when she does, she is in a blue funk and sees every aspect of her life as a negative.

She got an interview with a firm she has really wanted to work for, but in her call she had so many negative things to say about the firm, the hours required, etc. I don’t know what to say to her in these calls because no matter what I say, she says something negative.

She has dealt with depression and has always had trouble with change, so this might be part of that, but these calls are super-hard on me. The pandemic has driven her crazy, and she talks about how she has been hurt with it. She doesn’t understand that we feel the same way, and so does everyone else in the universe.

I had to walk away from the phone last night because she was causing me so much anxiety. I want to be empathetic and a good listener, but I don’t know how to do it when she is in one of these negative phases.

In a Funk: That just sounds like dumping.

Parents are the usual target, even when the “kids” are 28. There’s an unspoken I-don’t-have-to-treat-this-as-a-regular-conversation rule, where Kid can talk at Parent without going through the formalities of asking questions or expressing compassion or exchanging ideas. It’s not a great rule and is best used sparingly — even the most doting parent will glaze over at the thought of a lifetime as designated dumpee — but there is something nice, for those who have a forgiving parent or mentor, about knowing you can still call sometimes and go aaaaaaa for 20 minutes not to get advice but just for the sake of saying aaaaaaa, then hang up and feel better.

The thing about dumping is that the dumpee often worries for hours or days afterward when the dumper walks away relieved. That—the latter part, at least—is the point. Unburdening.

If that is indeed your daughter’s default, then maybe just recognizing this as her coping strategy is enough for you to release the burden, too. She doesn’t hate the prospective employer; she’s merely nervous she won’t get the job or be able to handle the work. She’s not oblivious to others’ pandemic suffering; she’s just overwhelmed by hers today. And so on.

If merely identifying your role in this transaction isn’t enough to ease your anxiety, then you can take more deliberate steps to set these burdens down. First, at a time you know she’s not in a funk, ask your daughter for clear instructions. As in: “I know you call us to offload stress, and I’m glad you trust us. I’m not always sure, though, what I can say that would be helpful. Do you want guidance, brainstorming, cheering up, just someone to listen?” A protocol could help you both. Leave prompts on an index card, even, by your favorite phone chair.

Second, develop your own ritual for managing these calls: say, to make supportive sounds only, not try to fix anything, and do ______ afterward, where ______ is a thing you find personally restorative and can easily do after each of her calls to transition yourself out of dumpee mode.

Third, if the others fail: Either explain that to her at a non-stressful time, and ask her to dump differently, or less, or to someone better qualified to help — or arrange to have your co-parent handle these calls solo when you get anxious. You already did that last night, right? So ask your partner to formalize it.

Therapy for you can help, too.

However you choose to preserve yourself here, the key is to recognize you’re entitled to. And will be more supportive for it. Helping your unburdened daughter doesn’t require assuming her burdens yourself.

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Dear Carolyn: I am not religious. How do I respond to people who say they are “praying for” me? I am always at a loss for words but usually respond by saying, “Thank you,” while feeling hypocritical.

Not Religious: They’re giving you the gift of their concern and attention, for which thanking them is not the least bit hypocritical.

You can specify what you’re thanking them for, if that helps: “Thank you for thinking of me”; “Thank you for your concern”; “Thank you for being here.” You don’t tell the person who buys you a sweater, “It’s too small, I hate the color and wool makes me itch.” You say, “Thank you.”

It gets complicated when context says a “gift” is more an act of thoughtlessness or even hostility — when, say, they mock your veganism then buy you Omaha Steaks. Then you go off the thank-you script, obviously, and deal with the problem head on.

When in doubt, assume their best intentions. Presumably those praying for you haven’t just tried to badger you out of your beliefs? Even then, you can choose to make the remedy smaller than the transgression. “Thanks — can’t hurt to hedge my bets.”

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