Carolyn Hax Live: Resentment on a stick (April 15)

Apr 15, 2016

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax chats live every Friday at noon to answer any questions you might have about this strange train we call life.

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Hi everybody, happy Friday.

A few good responses to today's column:

Hi Carolyn, Today's column really resonated for me. When I was in my 20s, the mom of a good friend got cancer. I was one of those people who was worried about saying the wrong thing, so I ended up saying nothing. I tend to try to deflect painful issues with humor, which can sometimes go a little dark. I didn't think my friend wanted that, so I retreated for a while. My friend perceived my lack of communication as a lack of caring, and because of that (and other reasons) our friendship ended. I took what I learned from that experience and applied when a close friend's mother recently died. I let her know up front that my response to other's grief is either silence or levity. I let her know I would be in contact regularly, but if my jokes are inappropriate to let me know. It made me less scared to be there for her. As a friend, sometimes it's tough to know how someone is handling tough stuff, and whether they want comfort, distraction, or to be left alone. The key is to ask sometimes.

For a moment I thought that my boyfriend had written this, in part because he went through a very similar situation just recently. I don't know the age of LW, but that may have something to do with it. My boyfriend and I are in our early 20s, and he lost his father, and dealt with his mother's terminal illness. Our friends hadn't dealt with that kind of loss yet, except for a maybe a grandparent or a pet, and couldn't relate. Many of them had no idea what to say because they had never been exposed to that kind of loss. Frankly, there were times where I had no idea what to say because I had never experienced it. It was really hard to support him (especially since he had so little support from his own family). The people who asked after him were the older folks, who had lost parents or had cared for ill parents. So age may have something to do with it. If you're close with some of them, I would talk about it with them in an open manner. If they aren't understanding, then dump them, but many of them will probably be very open and more than willing to help you get the support you need.

When I was going through my own BIG HORRIBLE, I found that it was nice to have some friends that didn't always ask about how I was doing or what was going on. Sometimes it was nice just to spend an hour having a cocktail and talking about other things. Maybe don't dismiss the people in your life who don't automatically ask about your mom. They can serve an important and valuable role in your life. They can be the people you call when you need a little distraction.

What do you do when you feel like you are failing as a parent? My 2nd grade daughter has terrible anxiety. We had her screened by a doctor physical causes and she has started working with a therapist but it is new and just not working yet. I don't know what to do to help here when she is upset and worrying about the item of the day. Rational explanation of why something is low risk don't seem to help, neither does just trying to comfort her. She is eight and I want to help her but I find myself getting very frustrated as we get into hour two and I used all the tools I have multiple times. I feel like I'm failing her and I'm open to any suggestions.

I'm sorry, anxiety is tricky--you need to take it seriously and stay calm and be in charge and follow your child's lead all at once.

It is, though, part of the menu of Crap That Happens With Kids. As such, it is not license for you to declare yourself a parental failure any more than it is for the people whose kids flunk reading, have ADHD, get cut from travel soccer or have nightmares about walking into a cafeteria full of their peers. We're people, we have Stuff, and we have children who have Stuff.

The key things are: You're willing to admit your child isn't perfect. That's a surprisingly high hurdle for some people.

You're trying to help. Kids see that in their parents and respond to it, if not immediately. 

You're admitting you aren't able to handle it on your own and you're asking for help from qualified sources. Another surprisingly high hurdle that you've cleared.

So, yay, you're doing all right parentally.

You're also frustrated? Human. Worried? Human. Plagued by self-doubt? Human.

... (more)


The next step I recommend is figuring out a couple of things that work in the moment, vs. solve everything. Ask the therapist, for starters, about short-term coping strategies as you wait for the longer-term ones to work. And, figure out a few things that keep *you* calm. It wouldn't be unusual if you had some anxiety-related traits yourself, or a tendency toward anxiety--and even if you don't, watching a child struggle can easily make a parent anxious, so managing your own temperament can be one of the things you try right now. Deep breathing, yoga, music, whatever is healthy and calms you is worth a try. You can even see if they help your daughter.

 ... (more)

And, also, think of areas where your daughter excels or feels competent. Putting these in your schedule can not only build her confidence and sense of control, but they can also serve as go-tos when you need to redirect your daughter from a bout of stress.

In that vein, also try to think of (more/new) ways your daughter can contribute around the house. Anxiety is about feeling at the mercy of outside forces, so developing competencies, including at household chores, is a sturdy way of giving kids a greater sense of control. 


To the OP: I was an anxious child who grew into an anxious adult, and one thing in your question jumped out at me. Explaining why something is low risk wouldn't have calmed me at all. Teaching me how to deal with that something should the worst come to pass was much more calming. IOW, instead of saying "that great big dog won't hurt you," say "here is what you do if you're ever attacked by a dog."

This dovetails nicely, thanks--it's "Here's how to handle it" vs. the not-credible "You don't need to handle it."

I've just been informed that my newlywed daughter and her husband have decided they don't want children; son-in-law is getting the snip. She is my third and last child, the third and last to marry, and now the third and last to tell me children are not planned for one reason or another. So the door is closing, officially, on my ever having a grandchild. I've been cheerful and neutral in response, but privately I'm so disappointed by this. I obviously had my chance to choose my family size, and did (partly because I hoped that with three kids the odds of eventual grandchildren were very good), and I have no right to wish for any other outcome, but I'm just so bummed out. Something I always assumed I would get to enjoy someday is now gone forever. Has anyone else out there experienced this? How do you get through the funk? (I recognize that this is not nearly at the same level of tragedy as, say, wanting to be a parent but not having had children of my own.)

I appreciate that you have healthy perspective on this, despite having every reason to be bummed out. I think it's totally normal to be sad; what parent hasn't been up all night with a baby and thought, wow, it'll be great to be able to enjoy one of these when I can also hand him back.

It's also a sadness you definitely share with others--Jess, any chance you can post this to Philes for open discussion? 

In fact, I'd like to add a discussion point for the forum: Not only are their a lot of would-be grandparents whose children chose not to have babies, but there are also a lot of kids whose grandparents have died or live far away or just aren't terribly involved. So, has anyone out there acquired a grandkid/grandparent-type relationship by other means? Neighbor, family friend, volunteer at the church's babysitting room ... ?


Hax Philes link for more discussion on getting through this moment, and maybe finding some grandparent-esque relationships.

Hi Carolyn! I work full-time and am in night school for my second Master's and am, to say the least, very busy from week to week. I also have a boyfriend of 18 months and luckily he is very supportive, but making time to see him every week is a struggle. My semester ends next week, coinciding with the conclusion of a very stressful project at work, and I'll be looking at about four days where I'll be able to get away from it all without leaving anyone in the lurch. Boyfriend asked me, What do you want to do? He can't wait for us to have four days to spend together and would like to get away for a few days. But the truth is, what I really want to do is curl up on my couch in my pajamas with an oversized wineglass and watch bad movies of my myself. I feel guilty that my free time is so limited right now, and that I don't want to spend the first uninterrupted block of it with my boyfriend, but I just want to be without any obligations for a couple days, and scheduling time to hang out with him has begun to feel like an obligation. Any suggestions for talking this through with him? This may be too big a question to tackle, but should I be alarmed that I'm not jumping at the chance to spend four days straight with him, traveling or vegging or whatever it may be?

Tell him you need the first day (or two) to be alone and fetal on your couch. It's who you are, so you might as well find out now whether he can handle it. Assure him that it's about your temperament and nothing else. If he's strong, then he'll be able to roll with this; if he's not, then he'll flip out, but you say he's supportive so let's assume that doesn't happen. If he's in between, maybe not strong enough to be totally cool with the blowoff but willing to take it, then just ask him to trust you and take your day.

If you think it'll be okay by then, say you'd like to plan something for the other three days of your break (or other two)--either without actually planning them because planning is stressful and you'd rather just wing it, or counting on him to plan it as long as it's not ambitious.

In other words, insist on your rest but also see it as a learning process--can you two both get what you need here, without surrendering too much or taking too much of it personally?


I have a child with anxiety and one thing that surprised me was how my instincts were sometimes so wrong for that child -- you are scared to go to sleep so I will sit here and read the paper actually wasn't helpful long term -- yes the child slept that night but the anxiety won which made the child more anxious. Talk to the therapist about what you should and shouldn't do to help.

YOU ARE AWESOME for recognizing the anxiety and getting your daughter help. It will take a while to take hold, I'm sure, and some things will come with maturity. My parents didn't recognize mine, and I was a child, so I obviously couldn't diagnose or help myself, so I struggled for decades with it alone. Keep up with the therapy and whatever else is recommended. And, if you haven't already, please consider Caroline's advice for screening for yourself. It took me forever to realize that my parents also had anxiety and that even if they were well-meaning, their behaviors had been making my childhood anxiety worse. For example, they bounced between not seeing/ignoring my problems and fussing after me/constantly trying to see how I was feeling. But bottom line - the fact that you are listening and understanding your daughter is huge, and I want to give you a big hug!

My grandmother has had a long illness, and yesterday the nurse determined she likely only has a couple of weeks left. My mom has been taking care of my grandparents for years in the form of delivered meals, but over the past year she's been over there during the day and leaving them with a nurse at night almost every day of the week. When my mom called last night to let me know, I was upset and called my husband. He asked when I could go see them, and I said "I don't know - mom says evenings aren't good, so I'll probably go by this weekend." This seemed to anger my husband; he said I should call my grandparents myself and ask if I can come by anytime that's good for me, that I shouldn't wait for my mom's approval. I tried to explain that since mom's been taking care of them, and we have a huge family, it makes sense for her to run interference and make sure there aren't too many visitors at once. My husband was very adamant that I call them and only calmed down when I agreed to chat with my grandfather the next day. Honestly, I'm just tired and sad, and I don't want to bother my grandparents at such a time. I know my husband is coming from a place of love, that he doesn't want me to regret not seeing her if she has a limited time, but I can't seem to find the right words to say "please leave me alone about this and let me and my side of the family grieve our own way." It feels like a typical situation where husband wants to fix something, and all I want to do is be heard and comforted while I handle it myself.

I'm sorry about your grandmother.

If you have it in you, please tell your husband that his pressure here, which you take as well-meaning, it not helpful to you right now. Then use your own perfectly right words: "Please leave me alone about this and let me and my side of the family grieve our own way." 

If you don't think you have it in you, then do what you need to do to get yourself through this difficult time. 

Then, either way, after this phase is over and you're feeling more yourself--whether you've broached the issue with your husband or chosen to dodge it--please, please get into counseling (solo to start) with a reputable therapist. The topic line on your question is "Losing a Loved One," but if I were writing it, then it would be "Boundaries? He don't need no boundaries." 

He is all over your decision-making process, and feeling-feeling process, in a way no spouse has any right to be, and you're obviously not comfortable enough with your own sense of boundaries to know when and how to tell him to step back. This is something you can work on and ultimately repair, but it'll take time and, judging only from your letter, some outside guidance, so it's okay to shelve it till you're more ready.

Hang in there.


As a Caroline who nearly EVERY time gets called Carolyn (Carol if it's really bad, Christine if it's really really really bad), I get a chuckle out of every time someone calls you, Carolyn, Caroline. Even with your name being in about 350 spots on this page, the Caroline vs. Carolyn dilemma prevails.

Glad I can be the poster child for hopelessness in this regard. And possibly others.

As a companion to the question from Never a grandma, I'm the daughter in that situation, except that I haven't officially told my mom that she won't be a grandma. I've never wanted kids so I'm sure she knows, but my husband and I are making it official (he's getting snipped) in a few weeks. Do I "owe" it to my mom to tell her this so she can formally grieve like Never a grandma? Maybe "owe" is too harsh of a word, but would it be kind to do so?

I think so, yes. 

I got married last month, and have acquired several in-laws (mother and sisters, and brothers' wives) who are all extremely easy to offend. For example, they act funny about the order in which I greet them when I walk into the room, and one of them was hurt when in response to her cat dying, I sent a pet sympathy card (instead of a general sympathy one). I have found myself in the wrong many times already, without agreeing that I belong there, and now that we are married they are more willing to bring it to my attention than they were before. What are best practices here? I frequently have no idea why they're offended and then don't agree with their offense once I find out why, and I think it would be impossible to predict all these offenses because they're so specific and so unreasonable. Do I make some kind of blanket statement? Ask my husband to make a list of all their nutty expectations? Or just proceed with abandon and let the chips fall where they may?

Proceed with *loving*  abandon, let the chips fall, contribute annually to the Hoot.

Your husband got through all this narcissism unscathed? 

For a long time, my husband worked shifts. Due to this schedule, we very naturally had some time when I was working and he wasn't and vice versa. When our schedules aligned, I discovered something - I missed that time! My husband said he didn't. But it's worth noting that he's an extrovert and I am an introvert. IMHO, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a "me day" even if all you do is sit naked on the couch watching daytime TV and eating cheetos. (I'm more of a cookies and Dr. Who girl myself, but whatever floats your boat). The problem was communicating this to my husband, who was just overjoyed at this idea of spending more time together. We reached a compromise - if I need a "me day", he doesn't intrude but we still meet back up for dinner.

All good, except nudity + Cheetos = orange in awkward places.

The fact that you even sent a pet sympathy card makes you a better, more caring person than most! I honestly would never have thought to do such a thing. They are lucky I am not their relative!

I am offended that you ... I don't even know. But I'll think of something.

That was me years ago. I could not believe I was dealing with such a thing with my 3rd grader. She is now 16. I'm pretty much on the other side. She still has good days and bad, has been off meds for about 3 years. She has better tools from counseling. It gets better, just as you did when she was a newborn, you learn with her. Advocate for her, cheer the successes, cry when you need, take a time out when it gets stressful. Both my kids have issues of one kind or antother. Some days I'm emotionally wiped out. Some days I see them deal with something they could not have even weeks ago and I know I"m making their life better over the long haul. Just wanted to share from the other side.

Learn with her, yes. This is awesome, thanks.

Dear Carolyn, When we read my father-in-law's will a few weeks ago, he left a sum of money to a much younger daughter he had out of wedlock about 45 years ago. The first we heard about this affair and my husband's sister was in the room with the attorney, who said that he advised my husband to leave money to his daughter in the will or else she could contest the will and get a share anyway. Which means she obviously knew who my father-in-law was and that he died. My husband and his brothers are floored by this, mostly because it changes the opinion they have of their father. My father-in-law had ample time to tell his sons about their sister, and he knew they were going to find out anyway, and he didn't. My husband has a lot of questions about his sister, her mother, and their affair. I think it's natural to be curious about this. It is pretty clear that the sister doesn't want to have anything to do with our family, she hasn't responded to any communication from us. My husband wants to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get his sister's birth certificate and her mothers name and try to piece this story together. It makes me a little uncomfortable, but I don't really know why. I am having a hard time supporting my husband when he talks about that route, and I'm not sure how to be there for him during this crisis. I usually live an ordinary life, so this soap opera has thrown me for a loop.

It does seem sometimes like life toggles between boring and flat-out mystifying.

Your husband is midway through a massive paradigm shift--everything he thought he knew and understood about his dad, family and therefore self is now open to new interpretations. Of course he wants more information on the sister.

Of course, I could just as easily be saying here, "Of course he wants to know nothing about the sister and pretend she doesn't exist." When people are undergoing an emotional upheaval, they tend to throw themselves into whatever they seem to believe will help it make sense to them.

So your role is, in many ways, just to get out of the way. Having strong opinions about what he should and shouldn't do or feel is not going to be welcome; that'll just make you another front in this larger battle he feels he has to fight.

One way to be supportive is to think of yourself as being out of the way, but also a kind of guardrail. Let him pursue this information but don't let him get overwhelmed by it. When he gets really upset, say you understand he's really upset, agree that it's justified ... and save your intervention leverage for keeping him from doing something rash or harmful. When you think he's taking something too far, instead of saying that outright, ask if *he* thinks this might be taking it too far.  Suggest waiting periods--"If it's a good idea to send that letter, then it'll still be a good idea on  Monday; why don't you sit on it a couple of days to think about it." Etc. Empathy, compassion and calm are three things you can bring to this mess.

When he's ready and if he asks, you can also offer perspective. Mine would be: People always have and always will have facets of themselves that they keep private. This is an extreme situation, maybe, but hardly unique. Right? And it doesn't necessarily invalidate your husband's entire view of his dad, so much as complicate it--though that's just my opinion and you and he might think otherwise. 

Ideally in this guardrail position, you'll have room to think about your own opinions, and will figure out why you're uncomfortable with your husband's response. Understanding that will help you further in the effort to be your husband's center of gravity.

It's nice to read about other people's kids today. My 17-year-old daughter is being evaluated for ADD and it is becoming pretty clear that it (or something) has been missed her entire life. (I've always known something was up, but school and doctors have been more prone to labeling her "lazy" and "immature.") I'm a single mom and have been since she was 3. It is only now, as the stresses really mount for her in high school, and she is exhibiting high levels of anxiety, that others are starting to believe me that there is something larger going on. And the behavioral issues, too, have me exhausted and feeling like a failure. I feel like I've been white knuckling entirely alone something I should have had help with long ago. I'm just hanging in, waiting for all of the upcoming appointments that will hopefully lead to help. But in the meantime, it's nice to hear I am not the only one . . . so thanks!

I am so so sorry the various authorities let you and your daughter down. 

You don't necessarily have to wait for results. You obviously know very well where your daughter struggles, so I suggest looking around some ADHD resources for descriptions and strategies that might fit your daughter right now. Even if the diagnosis is something other than ADD/ADHD, that doesn't mean that, say, a study skill or organization strategy that helps distracted students wouldn't also benefit your daughter. Two places to start, if you haven't gone this route already, are and Edward Hallowell.


Good luck.

You think that's bad, my name is Carol, but my middle name is Lynn

Do we have a Carol Line in the house?

Carolyn, can you give tips for how to check yourself when you start bean-counting (either in a marriage or family relationship)? What do I need to say to myself when those thoughts start creeping in ("I always take care of everything, I just want some praise and recognition or for you to do more for me")?

Say to yourself: "What can I do to change this unhealthy dynamic?" Then make those changes--like not taking care of everything, for example. Waiting for other people to play the role you want them to play is resentment on a stick.

"My husband wants to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get his sister's birth certificate and her mothers name and try to piece this story together" As someone who spends a great deal of time scrubbing personal information off of records released under Freedom of Information legislation, I'm pretty sure you are NOT going to get this information without the sister's permission. That's not how it does (or should!) work.

I wondered about this but figured the husband would eventually find out for himself what he can and can't obtain.

I wonder if your husband is not usually this Regimental Sargent Major - ish. He shouldn't be hounding you like this, but as you say, it can come from a place of wishing to help and make sure you don't have regrets later at a time when you're laid low. This frames how you talk to him about it now and later. I say this because when I was in a tizzy because family drama I was told not to visit someone and I was upset and vacillating my boyfriend told me they wanted to see me and it was idiotic and why was I even thinking twice. He was right. This doesn't mean your husband is right - he's not. You need to talk to him about it. But if he's generally doctrinaire that's a different conversation than if he's mistakenly feels he has your back.

I see what you're saying, but your boyfriend's stance sounds like advocacy for you in a one-off, Moonstruckian "Snap out of it" kind of way, whereas this is this: "My husband was very adamant that I call them and only calmed down when I agreed to chat with my grandfather the next day." That's not only sustained pressure, but also being very invested in someone else's choice and feelings. Different beasties I believe.

No, my name is Jessica. Now that there are more Jessicas around and fewer Jennifers, it has gotten better.

My life in reverse.

The risk in saying anything is that it could be the 100% Wrong Thing to Say, and it will be seared into that person's memory forever. I've read plenty of advice columns, including yours, over the years to know how deep that can go, how strong the anger and resentment can be, and how it'll never be forgotten along with everything else. So I'm a neutral, silent party.

Yes, the "wrong" thing can stick--but so can silence. That's one of the reasons I include this topic in my column so often. Not many people naturally know how to talk to someone who is stressed or grieving, and many are afraid to mess up in the process of trying.

Developing a few neutral things to say is actually your best bet. "I'm sorry you're going through this" is one of them. Yes, sometimes people will respond with, "Why are you sorry? You didn't cause it," but you can't account for people looking to find fault. You just say, "Of course, I just feel for you," or similar. You can also ask questions: "Would you like to talk about it, or would you rather talk about anything but?"

And, as always, you can be the person who is approachable with or about anything because you have a history of not making people pay for saying the "wrong" thing to you. Flexible, nonjudgmental people are the ones this LW could ask directly, "Hey, it bothers me that you haven't asked about my mom--is there any reason, like you're avoiding it or you forgot?" If you're ever asked something like that, then you can say, "I care a lot and I want to ask, but I'm also terrified of making things worse so I've been kind of stuck--I'm really sorry to let you down. How would you like me to help you?" So much can be accomplished by leaning toward honesty and away from defensiveness.

I had a great great aunt named Eva Line. Not Evelyn, Eva Line.

I'll call this the Finish Line. Ar. Thanks everybody for stopping by, and see you next week.

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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

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