Parents of young adults – has this ever happened to you?
You speak by phone with your young adult child, who lives in a different city.
The young adult is going through a particularly difficult – but "within-the-norm-stressful" (i.e., not depression, mental illness or other severe issue) moment – perhaps job issues, roommate/living situation issues, romantic issues, sinus or throat infection that they're ignoring, etc., or some combination of all of the above.
They sound absolutely horrendous. It's dire. It's calamitous. They're miserable.
You offer your support and/or suggestions, hang up ... and start worrying. You're brainstorming scenarios and solutions in your mind (Is there an Immedicenter nearby?) To make matters worse, you're not sure how to interpret the requisite Radio Silence which will inevitably follow from their end. (I'm sure they're probably fine, but what if ...)
Finally, anywhere from one day to several weeks later, you hear from them again. And when you ask about that dire, calamitous issue that you've been ruminating and stressing over, late into the night, you hear this in response:
“Oh, that? No, everything’s fine; that all got resolved. Catch you later. Bye!”
You stare at the now-disconnected phone in your hand, and wonder, "What just happened?"
I’ve come upon an analogy which I’ve found useful. (And again, this does not apply for situations of depression, mental illness, or other serious issue.) But first, let me back up about 20 years – which, in child years, can seem like both an eternity and an instant.
Remember this situation, from when your child was a toddler?
1. Your toddler feels really, really, really crappy.
2. Your toddler throws up all over you.
3. (this is a two-part step) –
a. Your toddler suddenly feels all better!
b. You are sitting there drenched in vomit.
It’s the same when a young adult child unloads on us. We’re there, we’re safe, we’re the support. They emotionally throw up on us. Then, woo hoo! They got it all out, and now they feel better! Off to play! Meanwhile, we are sitting there, drenched in vomit.
In the toddler case, wouldn’t it be great to have a big plastic poncho ready? The toddler could still throw up all the stuff inside that is making him or her feel sick, and you are still there for support – but you don’t get drenched through to the bone.
We need the same poncho as adults - not a real plastic one, but a metaphorical one. Because who wants or needs to be drenched in metaphorical vomit?
In discussing this with my friends, one of them said, “Yes! That’s exactly it! I need a psychological poncho!”
Keeping this in mind, I’m learning to do two things:
Recognize when I’m getting thrown up on. Just being aware of this can help. In fact, right after discussing this with my above-mentioned friend, she had the same thing happen again. But this time, she said, “I realized I had just gotten thrown up on!” It made a difference. She didn’t have a poncho ready (yet!), but she found that just having that awareness helped her to “shower off” quickly. In doing so, she was able to remember that her child did have the resources to deal with the problem, and she didn’t feel surprised when the child did indeed solve the issue on his/her own.
Tell people that I’m not a plastic tub. Our young adult children (or our friends, our co-workers, or anyone else who is no longer a toddler) are old enough to change their “vent and run” patterns. But we do need to let them know we expect them to. How can we do that, while still listening to what they need to share? By being a sounding board. A sounding board is different from that orange plastic tub I would grab whenever I heard that telltale cough (if I was quick enough; otherwise, it was all on me ... literally). A sounding board doesn't collect or absorb or get drenched in what comes at it. A sounding board promotes reflection, discussion, and solution-finding. A sounding board can help the "venter" create a springboard for action. And a sounding board embodies mutual respect.
Does this resonate with you? If so, try keeping the poncho and the sounding board in mind the next time you are on the receiving end of a "vent and run" situation, and let me know how it goes!
Ruth Kunstadter, MA, BCC works with career changers and other individuals who want to connect to their purpose and potential, and to create more self-care, balance, and fulfillment in their personal and professional lives. Find out more about creating your best "what's next" at www.newpathwayscoaching.com or by emailing Ruth at NewPathwaysCoach@gmail.com.