One day during his freshman year of high school, my oldest kid texted me to say: “I absolutely failed my math test in the biggest way. I’m so screwed Mom.”
I texted him back “Oh my goodness, what happened?” No answer.
I texted him again. No answer. I debated canceling my afternoon meetings and driving over to school to find out what happened. Hours later, I picked him up from the bus, my palms sweating and heart racing from my anxiety about his test. Before he’d even gotten in the car I launched into a panicked interrogation:
“Are you ok? You didn’t text me back. I’ve been so worried about your math test. Should I call your teacher? Should I email the dean?”
He looked at me, shrugged and said: “Oh Mom, don’t worry. It’s fine. After I texted you, I realized I got a lot of the answers right so I’ll be OK.”
Don’t worry? Seriously?!!! I’d spent the better part of my day worrying about him and his test. I was nauseous from worry, and sweat had soaked through my blouse. But “it’s fine”? I wanted to wring his neck for putting me through that.
Maybe you received similar texts from your high schooler that sound something like these:
My friends aren’t speaking to me.
Having the worst day. Hiding in the bathroom.
I’m never getting into college.
Advice from Dr. Lisa Damour
Likely those texts had you on pins and needles all day, at least until your kid came home after school and gave you the whole story. At which point, you were often reassured that things were not nearly as bad as they sounded. As Dr. Lisa Damour so wisely advises in her book Untangled, we have to let our teens dump their stuff on us so they can get on with the business of their day.
If calling us to share their worries about an upcoming history test allows them to go in and take that test, then we’re doing our jobs. If our kids need to text us about some friend drama that happened at lunch to get themselves to play practice, then bring it on.
Knowing that sometimes my role was to be my kid’s dumping ground (not punching bag —an important distinction), I got better at heeding Dr. Damour’s advice. I let my son (and now his younger siblings) unload his worries on me, and I held them for him so he could move forward with the work of being a teenager.
Over the years, I got very good at letting my kid hand me his stress without letting it (most of the time) ruin my day. I eventually learned to respond with empathy and reassuring murmurs like: I’m so sorry…That such a shame…I’m here if you need me.
My son now goes to college thousands of miles from home and no longer comes home for dinner every night. After a barrage of school day texts, I don’t lay eyes on him in the evening. I don’t sit next to him on the couch while he watches Monday night football and catches me up on his day.
Now that he’s in college dumping his stuff on me reaches a whole new level because all of our communication, the good, the bad, and the ugly, happens through a screen. Some of the same familiar complaints persist, and I can handle them with my eyes closed:
The food here is disgusting.
My professor is a jerk.
My weekend plans fell through.
But college also has a novel set of worries — making brand new friends, navigating dorm realities, pledging for Greek life, lack of sleep & sun & fresh air — which inspire a new genre of dumping:
I’m sick. Again.
I’m coming home this weekend. No I’m not. Yes I am. No I’m not.
I’m going to fail Calculus. I need to drop it. NVM.
There is no picking him up from the bus at the end of the day to get a sense of how sick he really is. There is no conversation over the dinner table to fully understand how dire the calculus situation may be. With him away at school, it is so much harder to gauge how bad (or not bad) things are.
It’s particularly difficult when he texts me about something that’s upsetting him, but then doesn’t respond when I text back. At that moment, I am truly powerless to help him and all I can do is wait to hear from him.So I’ve upped my game in being the dumping ground for a college kid, developed some new skills and honed my spidey sense to make up for the loss of not seeing him in person everyday.
Three new ways I’m responding when my teen dumps his stuff on me
1. Taking a pause.
I used to move right into solving mode when my son would frantically call me with an issue, but I’ve gotten so much better at taking a step back now that he’s away at school. When he manically FaceTimes me from his dorm room (where 20 boys are playing FIFA) and asks me to complain to the school about his disappointing schedule for next semester, I take a pause and remind myself not to dive in because: I can’t have a serious conversation with him when he’s surrounded by friends and it’s his job, not my job, to deal with his classes for next semester.
However, it is my job to support him. So I might say something like: I want to talk to you about this because it sounds like it’s really worrying you, but I don’t think this is a good time. Why don’t you give me a call when you’ve got less going on? Chances are that the next time I speak to him he will have sorted most of it out.
2. His mood is now less likely to affect my mood.
Another benefit to communicating when he’s far away is that his stressed-out energy is less likely to affect me. For instance, his fury over the “gross” cafeteria food or ire over his “awful” dorm options feel very real to him, and he will express them full-throated to me. But because he’s not sitting right next to me, I can better stay calm and be more helpful. I can take my soothing murmurs to the next level by uttering short phrases like — that sucks, so sorry, ugh… bummer — when he pauses for breath. He often burns himself out on the topic and moves on or gets off the phone. I like to think of myself as an escape valve for his frustrations.
3. I can’t force him to call me so I stopped trying.
When he was younger and dumped on me during the school day, I was desperate to hear back from him immediately and would flood him with texts to get a response. In my hard-earned wisdom (and with thousands of miles of distance) I’ve gotten better at not expecting a response immediately. I now know three things: I won’t hear back from him before 10am; if I send a picture of the dog I’m more likely to get a response; he will undoubtedly call me at the least convenient time for me, like when I have just fallen asleep. Murphy’s law.
These are my strategies for when I have been the receptacle for his worries that I have utter confidence will work themselves out, with or without my interference. I don’t say that to him, but I know it in my heart.
I wish I could say that these new approaches teach my college kid greater resilience and self-sufficiency, but honestly, it’s more tactical than that. They allow me to be an outlet for my kid without totally ruining my day.
More Great Reading:
Four Ways to Navigate Tween and Teen Mood Swings and Emotions