Carolyn Hax Live: 'She might have a huge community you don't see'

May 03, 2019

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax will be online to take your comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Hi all — Thanks for joining today.

We're going to get started at 12:30 p.m. ET. In the meantime, here are those goats singing Christmas carols from the Holiday Hoot. 

Hi everybody. What's new?

I’m afraid my soon-to-be sixteen year-old daughter is missing out on the best parts of her youth and I wonder what, if anything, I should do it about it. She’s a good kid, gets good grades, doesn’t do drugs or get in any kind of trouble but on the other hand she doesn’t seem to have any friends, doesn’t date, doesn’t go to parties, football games, or dances - nothing. Her entire life is focused on a tumblr blog she runs and the fanfiction she posts on another site. I’ve checked her blog it’s okay, but nothing most girls would be interested in - focused on superheroes and sci-fi movies. The stuff she writes is okay too, a bit too R-rated for my tastes but that’s not my problem with it. My problem is that these are the years to have fun, learn social skills, and build a good resume for college. My daughter will have absolutely no extracurricular activities on her college applications unless she writes about her Superman and Batman fanfiction. My husband and I have told her about all the fun she’s missing out on – he played football and ran track in high school, I was a cheerleader, in the theater club and never missed a dance but she’s just not interested - in anything. We don’t think she needs to be a cheerleader or an athlete but we do think she needs to be involved in something. What should we do?

Recognize, please, now, that she -is- involved with something. 

It's just not what interests you now or would have interested you when you were in high school. And that's fine. 

Better than fine, it's authentic. Your daughter is who she is and isn't afraid to honor that--and in fact is doing so under what is no doubt some pressure from her Popular parents to be what you think a high school girl should be.

Pressure, plus scorn. "[U]nless she writes about her Superman and Batman fanfiction"? Why wouldn't she? You totally invalidate her work and her passion when you talk about it like that.

To be fair, if she doesn't have a community, then that is cause for some concern; there's a fine line between independence and isolation, and her hobbies are definitely solitary. Writers of all kinds have to deal with that occupational hazard, that the whole process (unless we collaborate) is a solitary, one-person show.

But she might have a huge community you don't see. If you're going to make any headway in encouraging her to make social connections, then you need to know whether she has them already first. And if you want her to get out and circulate beyond an online community, then you're going to have to respect her terms first. Some kids see the sports/dances/theater aspect fo HS as more sanctioned torture than "the best parts of her youth." She is not interested in the cheerleader scene! Except perhaps ironically. So think about that before you offer up ideas.




Or, maybe a better idea, don't offer anything, period. The kid you describe sounds contented and well-adjusted--merely solitary, relative to what you're used to. So why not trust what you see to be a kid who is comfortable in her own skin? And embrace her for it. 

I just saw that Teddy posted the goats. I have it in my contract that they can upstage me only once a year! I AM CALLING MY AGENT.

As soon as I acquire one.

Hi Carolyn, I have a hobby I'm passionate about, and that with a LOT of luck and hard work could someday become a career (or a side career). I also have a full-time job, a side gig, a husband, and a baby, so I'm not exactly swimming in extra time or energy (or money) to dedicate to this hobby. That said, I just got the news that I've been accepted to a short-term program that MIGHT help things along with this hobby-passion. If I didn't have the jobs and the husband and the baby, it would be a no-brainer; I'd spend the money and attend the program. But I am having a hard time feeling okay about doing that under my actual circumstances. I'm the main breadwinner; taking unpaid time off of work AND spending money to travel and attend the program is an extravagance. I don't want to be away from the baby for that long. And it feels rather self-indulgent to put that kind of effort toward something that in the long run might never go anywhere. I owe the program a decision within a couple of days, and right now I'm feeling scattered and stressed and frankly sort of sad about it. Wishing I hadn't been accepted at all, that sort of thing. Do you have any thoughts that might help me get my mind moving in a productive direction?

Okay, you've given all the reasons not to go. Now say to yourself, "Dammit, I am going"--and figure it out. Like, this afternoon, on a yellow lined scribble pad, in to-do list form.

You owe yourself that.

You owe your family that, because not feeling like you can grab your occasional moment is a soul-killer.

And you owe Life that, because it doesn't throw us these opportunities every day, and it pouts when its efforts are ignored because we don't want to pay the 2 dollars.

If you can't, then you can't. Oh well. Sometimes the yellow scribble pad gives us bad news. And/or, sometimes it shows us that we didn't want to go as badly as we thought. But if all it will mean is for you and your husband to put up with some temporary discomforts, then, aren't you going to regret not trying to make it work?

I define "soulmates" as two people who choose to share their souls with each other. My husband and I are soulmates -- but not because of destiny. We both believe that, if we had never met, we'd be off somewhere else, happily living a different life, with a different person. But every day, we choose to stick together, trying our best to be honest, to be vulnerable, to be understanding, to be supportive. We try to love each other as best as we can. We try to bare our souls. It's not the stuff of Disney movies, and we're nowhere near perfecting it. But, if you ask me, a soulmate relationship created through conscious decisions, over and over again, is far more romantic than the stuff Hollywood dreams up.

This description is The One. Thanks.

My husband is leaving me because he's in love with someone else. I'm 29 weeks pregnant, we have a 3 year-old and a 5 year-old, and we just moved to a different state just a few months ago. Now I'm in a new state without friends or family, pregnant and abandoned by my husband, trying to explain to my children why daddy won't come home anymore. I'm just shattered. I have no one to turn to right now, and my friends and family are all in a completely different state. I want to move back but how would that even work? I'm not even sure my old job would re-hire me since I trained my replacement, and I'm pregnant, I don't even know how I'd begin a job search. Please tell me it gets better because I'm reeling and I don't know what to do.

Ohhhhhh wow.


Okay. This answer could go two ways, the comfort route or the practical. And I'm actually thinking practical right now, because that route can take you to much better sources of comfort than I could ever be.

You do not have "no one to turn to." You have these out-of-state friends and family. They can't babysit for you on short notice, no, but you can call them, lean on them, brainstorm with them--pack up and go stay with them, or have one or three of them come stay with you as you close things out where you are.*

Don't wonder whether your old job would re-hire you. Ask. Say the move didn't work out and you're coming back and are there any openings? That is, if you think going back is the answer. You could also go full badass and put down roots where you are--I have no doubt you could manage it, because people do, and as all five of us who saw the Anthony Hopkins movie "The Edge," "What one man can do, another can do, and a woman can do backward and in heels."

Just a little how-the#$%!-did-I-end-up-here humor.

The answer in general to the "how would that even work?" question is, always, one increment at a time. If you need a place to get the feelings out as you try to achieve this calmer, capable-of-higher-order-planning state of mind, I suggest therapy--either in your new state, if you can find the child care and have access to a referral source, or back home after you travel there for an extended stay to set things up for a return.

Hang in there. He left because he's not strong; you'll get through this because you are.


*As a not-attorney, I don't know the legal implications of moving with minor children away from their other parent, or what his leaving means to that calculation. So, talk to an attorney asap as part of this process.



My Mom used to laugh off my love of science fiction and fantasy books, tv, movies, comic books as "that silly stuff that [daughter] likes." And then I moved to L.A. and got a job on the writing staff of a fantasy TV drama. When there was a paycheck involved, suddenly what [daughter] liked wasn't so silly after all.

There are so many colleges (especially those with strong creative writing and liberal arts programs) that would love a student showing dedication to their craft while still in high school. Hopefully the daughter will find a college (if that's what she wants) that will be a good fit for her interests and passions.

Yes, thanks. Plus, the kids who enjoy high school's offerings the more traditional, promoted-by-these-parents way can actually have more trouble standing out than kids, as you say, "showing dedication to their craft."

My older sister has two young children, aged 3 and 5. This past Christmas, I asked what would be appropriate gifts for her children. I was given a couple of ideas with links for both kids, with the statement, "But they don't really need anything." I purchased two gifts for each child after spending a good deal of thought and care. Since December, I have visited their home a couple of times (they live approximately six hours away) and was overwhelmed by the number of stuffed animals and toys both children had. In the end, I never saw the gifts I had given and when I casually asked my sister if they had received them, she could not recall. I am asking what I should do for the upcoming five-year old's birthday. I again reached out to my sister, and she gave me the answer to purchase a selenite crystal because "He asks to hold mine all the time." My instinct is that he only likes this crystal because it is hers and it is not a toy. Essentially, I would be gifting him something that has little meaning and he would lose interest in it very quickly. I have considered giving a monetary gift of some sort, but as my sister and her family are very comfortable financially, I see this as another stuffed animal on top of the pile of stuffed animals. I feel odd to not give a gift, but I don't think my sister or my nephew would notice. I love them all very dearly and want my gift giving to have meaning. Is a simple card ok? Childless aunt

This is a huge problem, and not only for kids in wealthier families. The accessibility of stuff is just without precedent, and the kids--good for them, although it's not necessarily conscious--are responding to the material glut by gravitating to meaning. The crystal story says it for us. Plus, that's the point of gifts anyway: connection. It's just not as easy now to connect this way.

So, that's your goal here, to figure out what has meaning to a kid for whom stuff has no meaning.

The card actually gets you closest, but it's still not there, because he's 5 and there's not going to be a ton of connection there to words on a page. If you can write silly poems, that'll help, though that's a tall order.

You can also send a card that allows for a recorded message, so you can talk to him. Hit or miss, but it's at least more human than material. Or, you can send the "gift" of a ticket to ______ [outing he'd enjoy] one-on-one with you during your next visit. Time with you is of the ultimate value, and investing it when he's 5 and then steadily thereafter can be meaningful many times over as he grows. If you're not confident enough for an outing, then bring a project you do with him, based on his interests. A craft, a model, etc.

I'm sure others have ideas, so I'll post what I see.

My son, 11, has been acting up in school: not doing his homework, talking during class, picking on younger kids, getting write-ups, detentions, and just being an all-around brat. At home he’s disrespectful as well, picking on his siblings, talking back to me and to his dad. Before you ask, we’ve had him tested by both his pediatrician and the school psychologist and no under-lying health issues of any kind have been identified. Every other year I take the children on a really big vacation. This year we are going to California for 3 weeks. My son has never been and he really wants to go. His father and I have told him all year that if he doesn’t behave and buckle down at school, he won’t go to California. When I’ve reminded him, he behaves for a week or so then goes back to misbehaving. Even if he passes all of his tests and hands in all of his homework, he will only have a 2.3 at most and we agreed on a 3.0 or higher for California. I told my son that he won’t be able to go to California, and he just laughed. My ex-husband and I talked about it and we decided that we have to follow through. Is it reasonable for me to leave him with his dad while I take the other two children on this trip?

He laughed. You have to follow through. 

But please also learn from this that imposing big, abstract (to a child) consequences to small acts that are likely impulsive in origin is a serious mismatch of effect to cause, and therefore likely ineffective. It's so far from a natural consequence, and natural consequences--in the moment, caused by the poor choice itself--are much better teachers than the stuff we make up.

Plus, you always have to consider before imposing a consequence whether it's something you actually want. You can't say, for example, "no sports if you don't get your grades up!" when you happen to know that the sport is the one healthy emotional outlet your kid has. It's fine in the moment to say, "There will need to be a consequence, but I need some time to figure out what's appropriate." Then take time to see what you do and don't want to impose, and whether a natural consequence has already done the work for you--or whether you misguidedly stood in the way of such a consequence. "Parenting With Love and Logic" (just the original) is excellent at explaining this. 

Given the seriousness of picking on other kids--"brat" is also cringe-inducing here--it's time to bring your whole methodology with him to a good family therapist. Something is going on, even if it's not an "underlying health issue" per se, and defiance is something you need to learn to navigate ASAP, while you still hold whatever reins  you still hold. When he's 18 or even 16 and can effectively do what he wants, you're going to regret not figuring out how to get through to him to secure his cooperation in his own well-being.

Learn what's going on, and learn how to be his parent more effectively. When I say therapy, I don't mean just for him, I mostly mean for you. If that's unavailable to you for whatever reason (too expensive, not enough local practitioners, etc.), then look into parenting classes. Soon, soon. Ask your pediatrician where to look.

Time with you is the ultimate gift for kids. Babysitting is the ultimate gift for parents. Win-Win!

Many hugs - you're not alone!! For right now, one foot in front of the other. Reach out to anyone you know where you currently are who seems like they might be discreet and ask for a few things - lawyer recommendations, mom group recommendations, (do you go to church? that would be a great resource right now and the faith leader would be bound by confidentiality), maybe you can talk to your kids pediatrician (or use the pregnancy as an excuse for a meet and greet with one?) about a therapist recommendation and mom group recommendations. A therapist seems like a really important next step actually because you're probably at higher risk for PPD/etc now. And yes, you need a lawyer. I'm sorry this is happening. Also, be really nice to yourself. I'm a single mom, and this stuff is HARD. It's OK if the kids eat cereal or PBJ for dinner a few nights a week, watch too much TV, etc. You are doing amazing, you'll get through the day, week, month, year and will be OK at the end of it.

Lots of women read and write sci fi and fantasy and speculative fiction. I'm 52 and have been reading it since about age 11. Many of my adult women friends still read it, too, so it is definitely as much a girl thing as it's a guy thing. As Carolyn says, get to know what her social scene is before trying to impose another. If she doesn't know any people in person there is some cause for alarm, but don't minimize the people she knows and interacts with online. They're real, too, just not quite enough. And fanfiction is such an amazing outlet for learning to write well. My 16 year old niece writes fanfiction in the sci fi genre, too, and it's so cool to watch her writing improve as she goes.

Thanks for calling out the not-a-girl-thing part. Apparently I had more things to flag than I had flags.

I interviewed for my (elite) alma mater for several years. One of the key things I looked for (at the instruction/guidance of the admissions office) was sustained passion. I bet would have been thrilled to hear about her fan fiction - it would have given me something to write about to tell her story. Plenty of kids do track, football, cheerleading and never miss a dance - if that's your milkshake, fine - you can show passion there too, not knocking it. But someone who at 16 knows herself enough to dedicate time and passion to something she loves that's not mainstream? That's special.

Yesssss. I interview, too, and yessssss.

in HS, I was forced by my parents to "get out with the other kids" in the neighborhood each summer. It was torture, and I much preferred books, TV, and needlecrafts indoors. I was appropriately social in school, but with the other kids in the summer evenings, I was always on the periphery, and terribly conscious of my different interests. It made me even more insular. Now at age 62, I'm comfortable with solitude, occasional forays into groups, and my select group of friends. I'm still a reader and needleworker. And I still resent my parents for making me feel so utterly alien from society.

You're a reader and needleworker and a beautiful writer. Thank you.

Dear Carolyn, My daughter, 17 and a junior in high school, has a boyfriend in her class. They've been together for about a year. He is a very nice kid and I think that in some ways they are good for each other. Yet my daughter (who is a very feeling and open person) tells me daily about all their relationship issues: miscommunications, her feelings of rejection when he pulls away from her, her feelings of guilt when she pulls away from him, personality clashes between him and her girlfriends...the list goes on. She also talks about all of the work she does to stay together with him even when it's hard. She seems to feel that there is something inherently noble or virtuous in staying in a difficult relationship. If they were much older and married or had kids, I would agree with that...but I must confess I don't see much value in a teenage relationship that isn't lots of fun. (But of course some people do end up married to their high school sweethearts; I don't mean to overlook that.) She often asks me to listen or advise about her relationship. I don't want to belittle the relationship or the maturity of the people in it. How do I advise?

"You seem to feel that there is something inherently noble or virtuous in staying in a difficult relationship." Then listen. If you get a moment to ask this as the discussion progresses: "But what if you're just not well suited to each other? Don't you think that happens sometimes, too? Even with a really great person, who maybe just isn't great for you?"

That's the line of inquiry this situation begs for, but, in general, my advice is to mostly listen and ask open-ended questions like ^^. Some high school relationships can be dangerously unhealthy, in which case you do need to offer more forceful guidance. Short of that, though, they can be so emotionally instructive this it's best not to impose yourself too strongly on their inner workings. Again--listen, ask deeper-thought-prompting questions when she gives you room to, set good examples at home, and let her figure herself out.


You're right, of course, that kids have too much stuff, but I fell obliged to point out that it is the traditional role of an aunt or an uncle to small children to provide gifts that make a lot of noise. The more repetitive and clashing, the better. Bonus points if the noisy toy also incorporates markers or paint.

No. Glitter.

My brother had a son like this and would take him to the Comic-Con events in the nearby cities. He found his community there!

I am an aunt with nieces and nephews who have far too much stuff. I remember one Christmas where a nephew only opened about 1/4 of his gifts and had no interest in the rest. That was when I decided to make me their present; I would visit as often as I could afford, which to be honest was often just once a year. I get lots of bonding time with the kids and have a better relationship with the older ones now because of it.

Since the OP lives six hours from her sister, time/outings might be hard to arrange. If so, I'd vote for books--a good book that you can read aloud to the little one when you're there and a picture book he can look at by himself. Books are a great hook for ongoing connection, because you can write to the kids and talk about the books you shared, or talk about the on the phone. In discussing the books, you learn more about the kids' tastes to help you choose the next book. Eventually you can have laid the foundations of a good home library!

As the mother of a toddler, I'm brand to parenting thing beyond the baby stage. I read "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids will Talk" because I've often seen you mention it, and found it enormously helpful. Seeing you recommend "Parenting with Love and Logic" makes me want to check that out, too. Do you have any other go-to book recommendations for books on raising children?

"Nurture Shock," Bronson/Merryman; "Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children," Thompson/O'Neill Grace; "Protecting the Gift" (and "The Gift of Fear"), de Becker; all of these and "How to Talk" influenced the way I think about everything.

 "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" is one I never got to past the first few chapters (the kids stopped being toddlers, bless them) but has been highly recommended over the years.

And, don't forget just to read great books or watch great movies about humans doing human things besides being contemporary parents of toddlers. Any reminders of the bigger world are potential sources of perspective, and perspective is your friend.

The stepdaughter described in today's letter is eerily familiar to me. I don't think it was my stepmother who wrote in, but I can offer some perspective. Your stepdaughter most likely feels deeply her failure to meet your standards. She is drowning and lonely. Try to offer her compassion without strings attached. If you invite her to dinner, release her from the unspoken obligations you expect her to meet. Marriage to an emotionally abusive spouse (not a huge leap to assume, correct?) is incredibly isolating and burdensome. Offer her whatever level of support you can manage with kindness and without resentment. Offer her the comfort of family without the burden of managing yet another person's emotions.

Thank you. 

I hope you have some help.

Best advice I during my divorce. Figure out the most important thing that needs doing that day (which may be dealing with the kids being sick). Do that well enough and count the day a success. Everything else is a bonus. Also, as time and emotions permit, think about what you want from the divorce. Too many people show up at mediation and have no clue or haven't thought things through. And talk with folks you trust about what you think you want. Because the last kid isn't born yet, you've got 18 or so years of custody and child support ahead. I remember my mother pointing out that I was putting the welfare of my kid so far ahead of my own welfare in my divorce planning that I'd be lucky to be sane after two years. It took me a few weeks to figure out she was right and create a custody plan that worked for my kid and me.

My little sister (18) is in a sort of weird relationship with her boyfriend (26). OK, this sounds stupid but hear me out - her boyfriend always dare/bets her to do something to prove she is cool and sometimes I feel uncomfortably like it is borderline abusive? I mean, he dared her that she’d not sniff his friend’s unwashed jockstrap or that she’d not flash a homeless man her boobs. It is always vaguely humiliating, usually involves other people, and seems like an exercise of power on his part. On the other hand she always takes the dares and seems proud of herself that she never backs down, even when she is being sick because he dared her to eat a rotten fish. I have tried to talk to my sister about this, but she says I’m just jealous because I liked him first but he picked her. Which is true, I worked with him - that is how he met my sister - and I was a bit jealous/grossed out when he picked my little sister instead. I don’t think that is why I think he is a jerk now though. On the other hand, they are just dares? She could say no if she really didn’t like them, I guess.

Does she dare him? Does he comply?

If no, then this isn't stupid, it's grooming for abuse. 1-800-799-SAFE. Describe the situation and ask the staff to help you help her. 

My brother was around the same age when he realized that these were the kind of actions that could get him attention from my parents after he realized he wasn't going to be the one with the good grades--he wore "brat" like a badge of honor and continued to up the ante of "bad acts" once he realized this got my parents to give him the attention he needed--please don't slander your child and take Carolyn's advice to understand why he's feeling the need to act out, and maybe reflect on why you think punishment, especially exclusion of something that could be a way to recenter and bond (a trip) is the best course of action.

I raised my children far from their relatives. My parents used to send them a book along with a recording of my parent reading the same book aloud, and saying "Turn the page" at the end of each recording. My children are grown but still remember when Grandpa used to read them "The Grinch". I would suggest finding a book that suits your nephew's interests or was special to you, so you can tell your nephew it is now special to the two of you...

My boyfriend and I have been together for three years, and moved in together a year ago. I really do love him, but living with him has been driving me crazy and I don't know if I'm being reasonable, or I'm being a jerk. I grew up in a family where everyone had their own things. Mt sister and I shared a bathroom, but I had a different shampoo and she would never use mine and I would never use hers. There were always snacks in the cupboard that were specifically for kids' lunches - my parents would never eat them - and I would never eat anything I knew my parents had bought specifically for themselves. We only ever shared personal items with permission: you would always ask first. My boyfriend is an only child and everything they had was shared. He and his parents used the same shampoo, soap, toothpaste. If he needed to borrow a shirt he could just grab one from his dad's closet. And this has translated into us living together. If he runs out of soap? He uses mine. If he has no clean socks? He borrows mine (and stretches them out!) If he's hungry, he eats whatever he can find - even if it’s something that I purchased specifically to take to work. He needs change for the laundry but has none? He'll go into my wallet and take some. All without asking. We've talked about this, and his attitude is: "what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine and everything in the house is shared." This sounds unreasonable to me, and I don’t think it has to be this way just because you share space. Is he right? Am I being unreasonable?

"We've talked about this, and his attitude is: 'what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine and everything in the house is shared'"? 

WTF[ox]? Why does his ethic take precedence over yours?

It doesn't matter whose household-of-origin culture is the "reasonable" one. What matters is that you have yours and he has his and they're not dovetailing comfortably into a culture that you can both embrace as "ours." 

People who love each other and have hope for a *non-contentious* future together (I recommend it) will take these issues and try to reconcile them. For example: He can leave your food alone that you have purchased specifically to take to work, and you can lighten up about soap.

But that's only if you both stop thinking the rightness of your way over the other's is more right than the rightness of an effort to:

-work things out;

-see what's good about the other's culture;

-respect what the other's limits are;

-own where your limits are and you aren't willing to budge.

To your credit, at least you're open to the idea that you're handling this wrong. As described, at least, he sounds entitled. Not a trait that breeds excellent roommates.

My sister committed suicide last week. She was young (mid-30s), healthy, and to everyone else, appeared happy. My family and I are distraught as we are now making funeral arrangements. Inevitably, as we share the news with her friends and others, we are repeatedly asked how she died. I suppose it is a natural curiosity to wonder, but infuriates me to no end that people actually ask this after hearing that I've lost a sibling. This question is asked other ways as well. "Was she sick?" I suppose I can say yes, that she was sick, as mental illness would qualify. I fear that will lead to more questions. How can I end this line of questioning?

How devastating, I am so sorry.

There is always a way to end a line of questioning: "I prefer not to discuss it/I'm not ready to talk about it." Or, softer: "Thank you for your concern, but I prefer not to discuss it/I'm not ready to talk about it."

Since you can in fact say she was sick, and mental illness does in fact qualify, do consider, when you're ready, answering as you would if she had died of cancer:

"She had [name of mental illness], and died by suicide." 

That answer is both honest and de-stigmatizing. It is not your job to carry this responsibility for our culture, but if it's one you are willing to assume, then it would be a kindness.


One of the things that you didn't mention, and I'm not sure whether it's relevant given the red flag parade you did mention, was that the letter-writer said that this was the first birthday that had occurred during the relationship. So that means these two are engaged in less than a year part of which (no indication how much) has been spent apart. While I certainly know of people who got engaged quickly, it makes me wonder how well these two knew each other before they were doing the long distance total commitment thing. I'll let the red flag parade continue now...

Yes, I wondered too, but it could have been that they met, say, 10 or 11 months ago--and so introducing the whole how-soon-is-too-soon question for engagements with all the required qualifiers just struck me as clutter on top of an already busy answer. Thanks for the chance to explain my reasoning. 

Hi Carolyn! I'm scared to tell my mother I want to start therapy. I worked with a therapist briefly when I was 15 (I'm 18 now and still living at home) because my depression spiraled to the point where I couldn't take care of myself and was suicidal. I stopped for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that my mother tended to use it as a weapon against me when I was struggling (eg. snappish remarks about how my therapist would want me to try harder to do housework when I couldn't even get out of bed). I quit therapy, slowly got worse, and genuinely did not think I would survive until I graduated high school. But I did! And I'm going to college in the fall! And I'm so excited! I'm in a much better place now than I was back then, but I want to thrive, not just get by, and I know I need help for that. The only issue is, I'm finding it incredibly difficult to do the work of starting therapy. In the past you've advised people to let their loved ones help them with calls/appointments/etc., but I'm terrified of repeating what happened when I was 15, even though my mother and I get along much better now that I'm healthy enough to do my share of work around the house. I really don't know what to do. Thoughts?

Good for you for getting out of the hole you were in, and for taking steps to maintain your good health. That's so important.

I suggest leaning on someone other than your mother. Friend? Favorite teacher? Aunt or uncle? Identifying and approaching sources of support that you trust (vs. just are related to) is a big part of that maintenance. You can also, presumably, just call your old therapist to ask him or her to talk you through this process. That puts the bar much lower for a first step.

I'm sorry for those things your mom said. It doesn't excuse her actions, not even close, but it sounds at least possible she was scared/stressed and doing the parental version of "acting out." It's way too common. 

Take care, and write back next week, if you'd like, to share whether you've made any calls. 

Wow it's late. Sorry Teddy! That's it for today. Thanks everybody for stopping by and for your helpful contributions. Have a great weekend, and I'll type to you here next week.

First, I'm sorry. Second, know that we aren't asking to cause more hurt or pain. It's just the first natural reaction hearing something happened to someone for most of us is to ask what happened. But also know that most of us will take the hint if you say you're not ready/willing to talk about it.

I hate to say it, but this doesn't get much better over time. My mother died by suicide when I was 12 (42 years ago) and even today people will ask "how did your mom die?" I've learned to pick my answers carefully. With a person I've only recently met the answer will be "she died suddenly" or "unexpectedly from a long illness" or some other vague answer. If you say 42 years later that you still can't talk about it, people will think you have some serious mental issues. Only people I know well get the more detailed answer. But be prepared for their awkwardness when they get the answer. I think they really want to hear "cancer" or "heart attack" but suicide and murder are never the expected answer. I wish people would keep their curiosity in check. It's really no one's business.

1. Why do you ask? 2. (Change subject) 3. She died of an acute worsening of a chronic illness 4. Thank you for respecting our privacy at this difficult time 5. She had (mental illness) and died by suicide (or, if correct, by medication overdose, or whatever means) 6. She had (mental illness), and it was fatal. 7. The same way as (someone else the questioner knows, who died similarly, eg Robin Williams, or “your cousin”)

It's a three week trip to California. Can you split the difference? He messed up. He loses a week of the trip. But he still gets two weeks of the vacation and good solid family time away from stressors of school. This depends on the mechanics of direct flights/travel etc... But does it need to be all or nothing. But Carolyn is so right that any threat has, has, has to be one that you will follow through on.

Interesting solution, thanks.

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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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