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Dear Alice,

Our daughter was in the process of divorcing her husband of ten years after discovering that he had been unfaithful. Our daughter was emotionally devastated by this, as were we.

My husband and I have always been very close to our daughter, babysitting often for her children, and being her valued confidantes over the years. When we learned that our daughter and son-in-law were separating and why, we felt free to express our outrage about his betrayal and add any misgivings we’d had about him over their years. We did this in part to support her during this painful time. Some of our fears about his honesty were being validated, and we probably went overboard in denigrating him.

Now, we have learned they are getting back together. We are horribly embarrassed by our negative remarks about our son-in-law and are acutely aware that our daughter has pulled away from us.

We don’t know how to make things better. Please help us.

— Apologetic parents

Dear Apologetic parents,

You have much work to do to repair your relationship with your daughter. She is no doubt worried that you will never accept her husband after what he has done, and she may fear that you are disappointed in her for wanting to salvage the marriage. She may feel embarrassed by giving him another chance, and she does not know how to resolve this dilemma.

You need to take the first step and ask to meet with her. There is a good chance that this will help your relationship move forward positively since you will have a chance to review what has happened, address your response to it, and apologize.

When the three of you get together, explain that you only wanted to be supportive of her, that you were angered by his infidelity, and your mentioning other faults you’d observed was a way of trying to help her deal with the end of her marriage.

Assure her you now realize that your attempt to support her could also be seen as your finding fault with her choice of a husband, making her feel even worse about her judgment, when that was never your intention. You need to apologize for your narrow-minded comments and any pain they have caused her, thus taking full responsibility for your words. Ask her what you can do to help your relationship with her move forward, and ask for forgiveness. Given your strong relationship with her in the past, your daughter is likely to hear your heartfelt attempt to resolve this and hopefully will forgive you.

Your predicament is not unusual. The bond that your daughter and her husband share is deeper than you imagined. When the marriage of a daughter or son breaks up, parents must sit back and wait to see how the situation will be resolved, instead of declaring “war” or adding unwanted and unhelpful opinions. It is always a good idea to think carefully about saying something bad about a child’s spouse even if you think it will be helpful.

Accept that your relationship with your daughter will not be the same in that she will always wonder what you are thinking about her husband and her choice to be with him. In addition, she will have her own issues of trusting him for quite a while. You can now focus on being loving and inclusive of your son-in-law. Over time, you can forge a new connection with them both.

— Alice

ASK ALICE — Advice for All

When a Friend Is in Financial Need

Dear Alice,

My husband and I are conflicted over a situation that does not seem resolvable, and, unfortunately, we have a history of getting angry whenever we disagree. One of my closest and oldest friends has fallen on hard times. Her husband lost his job, and she had to take a part-time job that pays very little. They have two small children, one of whom has special needs. They are in the process of selling their house and are looking for an apartment to rent. In addition to my being upset over her challenges, I am trying to convince my husband to help them financially.

I feel strongly about helping her family since she has always been a caring friend to me. My husband objects, saying there will be no end to her needs, and that we have our own family financial responsibilities. He worries about money and fears that we won’t have enough in the future. While we currently have no financial concerns, we are not able to support another family. I also work part-time but primarily take care of our two young children.

My husband sees me as an easy mark in general. In this situation he questions my respect for his hard work and my tendency to be a bleeding heart. How can we resolve this without harshness?

— Determined

Dear Determined,

Resolving such differences in a marriage is no doubt a big challenge, but one that can strengthen a relationship if handled well. This friendship is primarily yours, and clearly your husband does not feel the same sense of responsibility to help that you do. He also may not believe that getting into such financial relationships with friends is healthy. The fact that he sees you as a bleeding heart means that he views you as someone whose empathy becomes questionable and excessive. It sounds like he sees himself as the rational one in your marriage and you the emotional one.

The only way to settle this issue is to discuss it, agreeing that anger will not be part of any discussion that you have. By initiating this rule, you might be able to hear each other instead of using anger as a wall between you. Try having each of you speak for at least five minutes without interruption. Listen with an openness that is essential. Point out that you want to find a solution to this dilemma that is better than the way you have handled other issues in the past.

You each have opposing views of this situation, and your emotional investment in your friendship is strong. Think about other matters you have differed on in your marriage. How have you managed to resolve them? I assume that you ultimately reach a compromise that ends the tension. State at the beginning that there will be times in the future when one of you will prevail and the other won’t, depending on how important something is to either one of you.

When you make your case, be reasonable in what financial help you want to provide for your friend since there is no guarantee that she will ever be able to repay you. Be sure to acknowledge your husband’s hard work and contribution to your family’s financial stability in order for him to feel valued.

You might also want to consider doing something other than giving money to help your friends, since your husband is so opposed. Volunteer to babysit or drive their children to appointments or activities. These may be of great assistance to your friend, saving her childcare costs, and soothing your husband’s anxiety about the money.

Having open discussions will convey deep respect for one another. Through them, you and your husband are acknowledging your differences and will be on your way to finding conclusions you both find acceptable. Think of this approach as a way to create a “roadmap” for resolving future issues that you will face together.

— Alice

With usual graphic

ASK ALICE — Advice for All

Helicoptering Parent No More

Dear Alice,

I am writing about my 15-year-old daughter who has just entered ninth grade. This is a very tense time for my husband and me. We know that if she is an excellent student, she will have a better chance of being accepted into a top university, which in turn will help her succeed at whatever career she chooses. Our daughter is also very anxious about school, since she understands that her high school grades are important for college acceptance.

Over the years I have always helped our daughter with her homework — reading and editing her papers, quizzing her before tests, and reminding her about assignments. I even wake her for school each day. Doing this has worked since she has done well at school. My husband, however, is troubled by my hands-on approach. He says I am teaching her to be dependent on me, and that she is not learning to take responsibility for her schoolwork. But letting go of my “job” to be the best parent I can be feels wrong.

My husband and seek your advice about the best strategy going forward.

— Anxious Mom

<Dear Anxious Mom>,

As much as you want to help your daughter, being so involved in her schoolwork is not ultimately helpful to her; in fact, it is more likely to be harmful. In the short term she is doing well, but she is not learning to be responsible for herself when you do so much for her. You need to substantially reduce your involvement so that she can develop and recognize her own capabilities. If you don’t change your approach now, what is your plan once your daughter is at college?

Tell your daughter that you are no longer going to be as involved in her schoolwork, and explain why, so that she does not feel abandoned by you. Encourage her to share any concerns this raises. Let her know you will be available, but you trust that she can develop her own ability to handle everything.

She may need reassurance that you will help her problem-solve if she is struggling with her coursework. Alert her to the possibility that initially she may not do as well as she has done in the past, but you believe she will develop the skills to handle things on her own. Initially, she may feel betrayed that you are no longer involved in every aspect of her school performance. Explain that you and her father have thought this through and recognize she is highly capable and deserves the opportunity to show that she can thrive without your constant oversight.

Her friends are very likely to be experiencing school as a huge pressure as well. This will add to the difficulties for you all since she will have to deal with the influence of her peers, a powerful force. She will need your empathy as she struggles through these challenges. Your continuing to emotionally support her and be her cheerleader in spite of what she hears from her friends may help her begin to think of her school experience differently, with less anxiety about the college acceptance process.

I also want to respond to something else you wrote: your belief that your daughter has to be accepted into a top college in order to be successful. That is not true. Success can be measured in many different ways. Financial success is one kind. A deeply rewarding career that gives your daughter joy is the ultimate success. I hope that you and your husband have had this focus in your own careers. Parents can be wonderful role models for their children. Talk with your daughter about what you have learned over the years that you wish you had understood earlier. Your openness will go a long way in her trusting your wisdom.

Don’t forget that even if your daughter struggles, many people are late-bloomers who begin to develop their strengths once they get to college or after they’ve graduated. Many students who were not initially accepted by a more competitive college transfer as they develop greater learning strategies and their grades improve. Some of the world’s most successful people never went to college at all.

Every successful person acknowledges some failures along the way, and many see their failures as their greatest opportunities for learning. Remember, life is not a sprint but a long-distance run.

— Alice

Dear Alice,

My husband and I are extremely anxious about a situation that has exploded into our lives this past year. We are the parents of a 15-year-old daughter who is being exposed to troubling internet material. We know she watched a series (“13 Reasons Why”) that showed the suicide of a high school girl and the tapes she left behind for people who harmed her. This was the latest in a number of things we’ve learned our daughter has encountered on the internet and through social media.

We try not to intrude in her life, but we are struggling daily to control our strong impulse to protect her. We want to talk with her about what she is watching and reading, but we don’t know how to approach her. She balks at our efforts to communicate about anything she views as private. We feel helpless to do anything.

We have asked many of our friends how they are handling this situation. Most have said they are ignoring it, but that is not our style. We believe our daughter is too young to learn about such things, and we believe we have a responsibility to do something. We understand that we can’t control everything in her life, but how do we cope with this ourselves and also be helpful to her?

Burdened

Dear Burdened,

Many parents have expressed great concern about the TV series (to which Netflix has added a warning), and are trying to learn how to be helpful to their child while managing their own anxiety about the material. I am pleased you recognize that you have a responsibility to talk with your child about what she has seen. I recommend you watch the series in order to have a full understanding of the issues raised. By knowing you’ve watched it, your daughter is likely to feel comforted and respected because you’ve taken the time to help her sort through this experience and her feelings about it.

Initially, she may avoid any conversation with you because she feels awkward, but over time you may find her willing to share her reactions with you, particularly when you don’t push her to talk. Much of what is portrayed in the series is embarrassing for a teenager to address with her parents, but she may share some of her own troubling experiences or those of her friends.

Do not expect much openness. The point of your conversations is to let her know you will always be available to her, you will never dismiss her concerns, and you will get her help if she needs it. Review with her who else among your family or friends, her school, a religious institution, can be counted on to be supportive if she is having difficulty. If she opens up to you about anything, you can help her problem-solve as well. Remind her how she has handled other difficulties in her life.

Many experts have faulted “13 Reasons Why” for romanticizing suicide. Emphasize that suicide is never a solution. Ask her whether she agrees with this criticism. Listen carefully and respectfully to anything she says. If she is receptive, tell her what you have observed about the series that concerns you. You might ask her to imagine another ending that saves the girl. A website, www.jedfoundation.org, has talking points that may be particularly helpful to you in this process.

Raising children today brings great challenges. Try to look at this situation as an opportunity to develop a closer relationship with your daughter. Decades ago, most parents did not know how to have these conversations.

Although children are exposed to things that were generally unheard of in the past, there is now more information and research on how to parent effectively, how to treat depression, how to build resilience in children, and the impact of sexual assault, drug use, and bullying. See yourselves as partnering with your child in managing all the stress that growing up entails.

 

Alice

Ask Alice — Advice for All

Plagued by the Past

Dear Alice,

I am somewhat embarrassed to be writing to you about a longstanding family problem, which I need to move past. I am a 40-year-old man with a wife and three children. The issue that continues to plague me is the way my parents treat me versus how they treat my brother, who is two years my junior.

For as long as I can remember, I have been viewed as the lesser of their children and continue to be compared unfavorably with him. In my parents’ eyes, he is smarter, more successful, and better looking.

Strangely, my parents’ words motivated me to try harder in order to please them. While I have had a successful career, I continue to have the sense that I’m not good enough. Further, I fear that this pattern has started to show up in my own parenting.

I don’t want to do to my children what was done to me, but I sometimes hear myself saying similar, critical things to them. My wife is very angry with me about these remarks and urged me to write to you for guidance.

— Past Imperfect

Dear Past Imperfect,

You are wise to address this now, before it gets so ingrained in your children that they, too, carry with them distorted views of themselves. How parents behave toward their children and what they tell them is powerful. These experiences have a lasting effect on a child and become the “truth” of who he or she is unless the negative view is ultimately challenged.

Recognizing where you began to believe you were not good enough is important. Now you can begin to leave these distortions where they belong: with your parents. We can never know what led to their thinking, but we can surmise that they thought this would motivate you. They were likely unaware of the damage such statements could cause. I am very pleased that your wife has not gone along with this and has insisted that you change your behavior.

Now that you have children of your own, you have an opportunity to offer them a childhood that does not cause them the harm that you experienced. Start by acknowledging to your children that you have been wrong in ever stating or suggesting that others are better than they are. Explain that you are sorry for any time you have said this, and tell them that you plan to behave better. As you are careful over time with your words, they will begin to develop trust in you.

Let each of your children know what you especially value in them. This may be challenging for you at first since it is so unfamiliar, but over time you will find it more natural and begin to see the benefits. When you realize that no one more than you and your wife deeply affect your children’s sense of self, you may find it easier to deal with them in a positive manner. As a result of your new approach, their motivation to succeed won’t come from a negative place, as yours did. Their sense of self-worth will increase because you and your wife are supportive, not denigrating.

You are the proof that parents’ words are powerful, since you continue to carry the negative messages from the past. Your recognition of how you still struggle with their words should remind you that you want more for your children. You know the damage your parents caused you. Perhaps you can heal your own painful past by offering an especially loving environment to your family. Your children will begin to carry positive messages from you and your wife that will enrich their lives. In addition, you will be preventing harm to the next generations.

Children learn to be parents from their own parents. As you teach your children a kinder way, they will be more likely to replicate this with their own children.

Remind yourself that any time you degrade your children you are treating them as you were treated. Human beings can change their behavior if they are committed to it. Make the decision and do it.

— Alice

Dear Alice,

As we approach Mother’s Day I am struggling with a family situation that feels anything but celebratory of. Our daughter is married to a man who appears to the world as a caring and religious person. However, he treats my husband and me as if we were unimportant to him. When we go to their home for our weekly visit to see our grandchildren (it is almost an hour drive away and not easy to do each week), he is usually on his computer and doesn’t even look up. I always go over to him to say hello, but my husband now refuses to.

We have been very good to our son-in-law and have fully accepted him into our family. This mostly affects my husband who is the stepfather and feels that he matters even less than I do. My husband no longer wants to be with them. Usually we celebrate Mother’s Day together. Going out for dinner has been our tradition. I have asked my husband to attend this dinner but he does not want to go.

Our son-in-law, an only child, is very close to his parents who live part of the year nearby and part out West. I suspect that he resents us, but I don’t know why. He does everything for his parents when they are in town. He even helped renovate their apartment. Sadly, when we ask for something simple, he is always too busy to help us.

I don’t want to make trouble with my daughter who seems to adore her husband and has never criticized him to me. She lets him make most of their family decisions, and I fear that he could limit our contact with our grandchildren if we are not careful.

Do you have any suggestions on how I can convince my husband to come to the Mother’s Day dinner?

— Ignored

Dear Ignored,

Certainly things have gotten quite tense as a result of your son-in-law’s lack of civility toward you. Your description of him suggests that he knows how to behave better than this. He is exhibiting barely suppressed anger when he doesn’t acknowledge you.

It’s hard to know what’s on your son-in-law’s mind. He may be holding onto some situation that occurred early on in your relationship. He may resent that his own parents do not live nearby throughout the year. Either of these two explanations or other possibilities may explain why he is acting out in poor treatment of you and your husband.

Doing nothing about your son-in-law’s behavior is risky since your husband is terribly hurt, and his refusal to participate in future family gatherings will certainly have a serious impact on your family. How you handle this now may improve the situation.

I recommend that you speak with your daughter about it in a very non-threatening way. Ask her if there is a problem since you have observed that her husband has seemed very busy whenever you come to visit. Be open to anything that she has to say, even if it is painful to hear. Do not mention the inequity between how he treats you versus how he treats his own parents since this may cause his defensiveness when she talks with him. Your daughter may not have observed any of his behavior. Hopefully, she will ask her husband if he is unhappy about something regarding her parents.

Perhaps your son-in-law will recognize that there is a consequence to his bad behavior in that it has been noted. Her mentioning this to him may cause him to think about it and reevaluate how to behave toward you. He may, however, choose to ignore what your daughter says and continue to behave rudely.

You can’t change your son-in-law’s behavior and certainly your confronting him directly would be disastrous. Since you want to stay close to your daughter and grandchildren, continue to visit and have low expectations for any meaningful contact with your son-in-law.

Ask your husband to attend your Mother’s Day gathering this year, and every year. You want your grandchildren to experience the joy of having family celebrations that create beautiful memories and honor important members of the family. Mother’s Day is such a day.

Families are complicated and take work to maintain. Encourage your husband to keep the family together in spite of this challenge. Perhaps you will have a surprisingly good Mother’s Day after all.

— Alice

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