Dear Parent of an Adult Child…PART II

Last week I wrote about dealing with adult children and codependent behaviors.  This week I want to make things a little clearer because it’s hard to change behaviors when you don’t know what you’re aiming to eliminate, and if you don’t have anything healthy to substitute in its place.

Let’s return to our initial example, that of my client and her mom, after my client’s breakup from the unbalanced boyfriend that her mom really liked.  What could mom have done instead that would have been emotionally healthy?

To make this discussion clearer and easier, let’s give these people names:

My client:  Trina               Her mom:  Mabel               Trina’s unbalanced boyfriend: Fred

Let’s break this down (and no, it’s not Hammer Time):

Until a month ago, 22 year-old Trina was living with 23 year-old Fred, who recently moved to the state where his parents live so that he can pursue an externship in his field.  He graduated a year ago and was unable to find an externship in Arizona.  After Fred moved back to his home state, Trina moved back home and is living with 48 year-old Mabel.

About two weeks ago, Trina admitted to herself she wasn’t in love with Fred anymore and broke up with him.  Fred didn’t handle it well, threatening suicide, which freaked Trina out pretty badly.  Not knowing what to do, she asked her mom Mabel for help, and Mabel ended up on the phone with Fred.  Mabel spoke to Fred and couldn’t calm him down.  During the phone conversation, Fred reiterated his desire to commit suicide.

So…what should Mabel do?

Before Fred threatened suicide, the proper response to Fred is listening. Listening is always good. We are always free to be a soft shoulder for someone to cry on, but listening and attempting to fix their problem are not the same thing. For that reason, Mabel should not offer her opinions about what should be happening between Fred and Trina in regard to their relationship.  Letting another adult unload their feelings and struggles to you should be an “in one ear and out the other” kind of moment.  Not that you should forget their concerns, but that you shouldn’t let yourself get emotionally invested in what happens next. If it’s not your life, don’t get emotionally invested.  The best thing that Mabel can do in this situation (if she’s going to talk to Fred at all) is to listen to Fred’s concerns, let him unload, maybe encourage him to express his feelings (some folks have trouble with that), and then listen some more.

Once Fred expressed a desire to commit suicide, everything changed. Always take threats of suicide seriously, and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by them.  In other words, call 911 and let the police handle the person threatening suicide.  People who are seriously threatening suicide need immediate help, and you are not qualified to determine what constitutes a serious threat of suicide. Even mental health professionals and police officers struggle with that.  Finally, anyone who threatens suicide but isn’t serious about it is using the threat to manipulate you into doing what they want you to do.  Refuse to be manipulated by taking all suicide threats seriously and refusing to intervene except by calling 911.

What would a codependent response look like?

  • Begging Fred not to commit suicide and giving him a list of reasons he should live.
  • Agreeing to talk to Trina and convince her that she shouldn’t break up with Fred.
  • Agreeing to intervene with Trina at all, in any way.
  • Yelling at Fred for being over-emotional and encouraging him to “man up” or “get a grip”.
  • Doing anything other than listening to Fred and calling 911 after he threatened suicide.
  • Getting emotionally invested in the outcome…in other words, getting emotionally involved with what happens after the phone call with Fred ends.

Let’s take a moment to talk about getting emotionally invested in the outcome.  Please note that calling 911 to stop Fred from committing suicide is not ‘getting emotionally invested in the outcome’.  It is an ethical action required to save a life.  You don’t have to be emotionally invested in the outcome in order to care about a stranger enough to call 911.

Getting back to the point: we love our families and friends and of course we will have feelings and emotions about the things that happen to them.  Your daughter gets a promotion and a raise?  You will probably feel happy.  She has a breakup with her husband? You will probably feel sad and anxious about what will happen next.  That’s normal.

What’s not normal is getting emotional at the level you would be emotional if these things were happening to you.  The emotions we feel about our own lives are necessary to help us take action on our own behalf.  So…if our emotions are there to help us take action…what action can we take if the emotions we feel are about someone else’s life?  It can be very hard to restrain yourself when the impulse to act is driven by such strong emotion…and in the attempt to stop ourselves from taking actual action, we often try to emotionally influence the other person to do what we want.  This is called manipulation. The word manipulation is defined by Webster as to “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”  In my counseling practice I define manipulation to my clients as “using emotions or words to try and force other people to do what you want them to do.”  Force?  Dang…that’s a strong word, but that’s exactly what it feels like when someone is manipulating you.  You might think that getting emotionally invested in the outcome is an innocent thing that happens when you have a tender heart or you are a very caring person, but tender hearts don’t force people do things and caring persons don’t attempt to control or influence unfairly or unscrupulously.  If you are actually a caring and tender hearted person, take steps to protect your tender heart and care enough to control yourself (the only thing you actually control) and let others do the same.   We’ll talk about how to protect your tender heart next week.  Wow…it turns out that this codependency and adult children thing is going to take a while to discuss.

Now let’s talk about the furniture.

Fred called Trina and said that he had resigned himself to losing her and needs to move on.  He asked Trina to send him certain items that he left with her when he moved, thinking that she would move to his home state after graduation so they could continue living together. Fred only wanted the smaller items sent to him and was not interested in having Trina ship the furniture to him; those he wanted donated to Goodwill.  Then Fred called Mabel and said pretty much the same thing to her. He requested that his bed and desk be donated to Goodwill because he no longer wanted them and then he told Mabel that he could not bear the idea that Trina might sleep with another man in that bed.

What should Mabel do?

Let’s start with the fact that Mabel doesn’t need to be involved in this at all.  The fact that Fred called her after giving Trina instructions is a clear sign that Fred is up to another act of manipulation.  Remember how we defined that earlier as using words or emotions to try and force other people to do what you want them to do.  Do you get the picture now?

Let me remind you that Trina is a 22 year-old adult.  Other than the moral issue of keeping things that Fred requested be sent to him, Mabel has no reason to interfere with this situation.  She is free to ask Trina if she needs help getting things gathered up and mailed off, just as Mabel might help any other adult who needs to get a large number of items to the UPS store.  But what if Trina refuses to mail Fred his possessions?  That’s a little stickier, but we aren’t talking about criminal activity, just ethically and morally reprehensible actions.  If Trina decides to be unethical, then Mabel is free to share her disappointment and disapproval of Trina’s actions…and then Mabel needs to shut up.  Trina is an adult, and her choice to be moral or ethical is her own.  We don’t go next door to monitor our neighbor and make sure they return all their spouse’s property when they get divorced, and we need to be careful what we say to our adult children for the same reason.  If you disapprove of another adult’s choice, you are free to tell them so, but it is wise to shut up and let it go after you tell them the first time.  Anything more than that is harping and nagging…and a direct attempt to force them to behave according to your will…and that is manipulative and codependent.**

What about the bed and desk?  Fred doesn’t want them…so Trina is free to do whatever she wishes.  If Trina wants to follow Fred’s wishes, she can donate the bed and desk to Goodwill.  If she decides that she needs those items right now, she is free to donate them to herself (after all, Fred has requested that she donate them to charity…he doesn’t need them.)  If Mabel wants to follow through with Trina about that, she may want to ask Trina what she’s going to do…and Mabel is even free to have an opinion about what is the right thing to do. Let’s remember that Fred doesn’t want the bed or the desk.  Now you might think that perhaps Fred was trying to be charitable and would not be okay with Trina keeping those items because of their value.  If Mabel thinks that charity was Fred’s goal then she is free to suggest that Trina donate a certain amount to Goodwill to make up for what Goodwill could have gained by selling those items.  Then again, Mabel might want to tell Trina that she thinks it would be wise to get rid of those items, but no matter what Mabel thinks, it is Trina’s to decide what happens with the bed and the desk. Unless Mabel paid for the bed and the desk (which would make them her property) what happens with them is not her decision and she has no right to force Trina to do anything.  Then again, Trina is an adult…so Mabel never has the right to force Trina to do anything.  She can refuse to let Trina live in her house, but that’s about all the leverage she has when it comes to Trina’s behavior, and it is not okay to threaten to throw someone out of your house just because they won’t do what you tell them to do…that’s manipulative and codependent.  We will deal with adult children in your house who are out of control and have no respect for your boundaries two weeks from now.  Again, this adult children thing is going to take a while to discuss.

Several times in this post and the last, I have said that Mabel needed to ask Trina what Trina wants to do.  This is called respecting the agency of another person. Then again, you can just call it respect, and respect is always a good idea in theory and in practice.

What to take away from this if you want to be healthy:

  • Just listen…don’t fix. When other people are talking to you, listen! Don’t tell them what to do, and don’t attempt to fix their problem unless they ask for your assistance. Listening is kind and loving and lets the person talk through the situation until they come to a better understanding of it.  Telling them what to do or ‘fixing’ things by intervening without their direct request tells them that you think they are too stupid or utterly incapable of handling things on their own.  Just listen…don’t fix.
  • Ask before acting. You are always free to offer assistance, but ask the person what they want from you.  You have no idea what someone else really needs until you ask them, and it is possible any ‘help’ you would offer will be experienced as interference by the person you are trying to help.  Don’t assume you know what someone else needs. Ask before acting.
  • Don’t insert yourself into someone else’s drama. It doesn’t matter if they are your child, your friend, your sibling, or your parents…if the issue is theirs, let it stay that way. This includes practicing “in one ear and out the other” listening, as well as not allowing anyone to manipulate you into entering their drama (think: Fred calling Mabel about the bed and desk.) No matter how dire they say their situation is, no matter how upset they are at this moment, you don’t have the answers to someone else’s problems. In the end, all you are doing is creating a mess that will make a great episode of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. Don’t insert yourself into someone else’s drama.
  • Don’t get emotionally invested in the outcome. I know I said this earlier but it bears repeating.  No one wants to be called controlling or manipulative, but that will be the label you get if you allow yourself to get emotionally invested in the outcome of things you do not actually control.

While we didn’t talk about these specific things in this post, here are two more things crucial to avoiding codependency and manipulative behaviors.

  • Let people screw up and make bad decisions. Essentially, let people fail. Failures can lead to all sorts of good things!  The inventor of vulcanized rubber was trying to do something else entirely and accidentally invented the rubber used in your car tires. Technically, his experiment failed, but I’m betting you’re not going to give your tires back.  You might think that failure is not always so positive in our personal lives, and you would be right. Failure is not always positive and good things don’t always come from failure.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that you can list quite a few failures in your own life right now as you read this…and you are still here, breathing, reading, and learning. Apparently, failure isn’t fatal.  So don’t freak out when someone you love makes a choice that you fear will lead to epic failure.  You are always free to tell them that you don’t think they’re being wise, but don’t try to stop them. Failure is often the doorway to great things and it always leads to learning important lessons. Let people screw up and made bad decisions. Let people fail.
  • Don’t save people from the consequences of their own bad actions and failures. This one is hard.  When you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer…but sometimes suffering is exactly what we need to cause us to change.  Consequences are our best teacher!  And it is really uncomfortable watching someone go through the consequences of a DUI, or of an affair, or of a failed marriage.  It is going to cause you pain to watch this person you love experience their consequences…and if you love them, you will suck it up and feel the pain—both yours and theirs.  If you love them, you will let them learn this lesson this time so they don’t have to go through this twice…or three times…or more.  Far worse than suffering through this pain with them this once would be suffering through it with them two or more times because you prevented them from feeling the pain the first time.  Don’t save people from the consequences of their own bad actions and failures.

Next week I am going to address the issue of being tender hearted.  Remember that a huge part of codependency is being unable to deal with emotions that other people’s actions cause you.  It is really hard sitting back and watching your child make a foolish decision with their life or their career.  It is painful to watch your sibling deal with the consequences of their DUI.  In general, the behavior of our friends and family can cause us to feel overwhelming amounts of anxiety, pain, shame, and anger…and what do you do with all those feelings?  Let’s discuss that next week, because dealing with the feelings was the hardest part for me to conquer, and it was the key to ending my own codependent and manipulative behavior.

**If you are having problems with letting an immoral / unethical person live in your house, please see last week’s post for a short comment, and then come back for the next two week’s posts.  I promise that we’ll work our way through the whole thing before we’re done.

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