Dear Imprudence: Creating Space, Retaining Support

A recent Ask Amy column featured a letter from a college student with a common problem; parents who want to exert a high level of control. Here in the US, school’s been in session for a little over a month now, and the winter is coming on, and I suspect that the number of students struggling with the adjustment to college will be increasing, judging from my own experiences in college. The newness has worn off, it’s getting dark and cold, and, well:

Dear Amy: I love my parents, but even though I got straight A’s in high school without their assistance and have never gotten in trouble, they constantly nag me about homework and grades.

I thought this would end when I went to college, but I was wrong.

When I admitted I save my homework for Sunday afternoon, my mom chastised me.

She gets upset that I shield my personal life from her, but when I do share, she finds something to criticize, nag and/or make snide comments about.

When I ask my mom to stop, she either gets defensive or tells me it’s her job as my mother.

I am still recovering from depression, so I need more support and acceptance from my parents and less passive-aggressive criticism and nagging.

Any suggestions?

— Frustrated Freshman

There are a couple of interesting things going on here, and I wanted to tease out one in particular because I was just talking about it with Anna: Policing of study habits. Many people seem to believe that there is a specific ‘right’ way to study and that if you don’t study that way, you’re doing it wrong. Staying up all night to study is wrong, even if your sleep schedule is actually better suited to studying at night. Studying with music on is wrong. Moving while studying is wrong. There’s a whole long list of things touted as ‘good study habits,’ like ‘don’t leave your work until the end of the weekend.’

To me, what makes a good study habit is what works for a given student. By all performance metrics generally recognised and accepted, this student is doing well. Studying at the end of the weekend hasn’t precluded making good marks and going well in school. Clearly, it’s a system that works for this student.

For this student, there’s an added dimension of depression and the need and desire for support. When talking about your personal life or your approach to school results in judgmental comments and nagging, you tend to shut down, which means that you can’t access that support. Nagging this student about study habits sets up two things: The student is being told ‘school, you’re doing it wrong’ and is being told that support isn’t available, even if it’s wanted, from family members. That has an extremely isolating effect.

What does Amy have to say?

Dear Frustrated: I hope you are working with someone at your college’s counseling center. Because of your depression, you should receive ongoing support.

A counselor at school will be familiar with the issue of hovering parents and will help you establish a healthy and mature distance from them.

Your mother’s behavior has consequences. You should continue to reassure her but not offer details about your life which she is likely to criticize.

Because your parents are having such a hard time letting go, you will need to establish the distance necessary to grow. If your mother starts to nag and criticize, you should say, “Mom, I don’t like this, and it’s not helpful, so I’m going to have to check in with you later.”

Do your best academically, and also join organizations that will bring you in contact with other students outside the classroom.

And don’t drink. Alcohol is woefully omnipresent on most campuses, and using it will aggravate your depression.

Ah, ok, a lecture.

This student seems to have it pretty together. Depression is recognised as an issue and it seems likely that the student, you know. Knows there is a college counseling centre, although it’s worth pondering how accessible that centre is. How easy is it to make an appointment? Is it possible to discreetly get information? Many students don’t seek mental health counseling because they are afraid of the associated stigma, or because they can’t figure out how to work the appointment system, or any number of things.

The advice with the script to the mother is pretty sound; after all, the student did write in for advice about dealing with parents. But the added lecturing seems a bit unnecessary to me; the student isn’t asking for advice on dealing with depression, but specifically for advice on navigating a relationship with parents. That’s a separate, although related, issue. The question here wasn’t ‘how can I deal with depression in college’ but ‘how do I set boundaries with my mother while also asking her for the support I need?’ And the student specifically mentions wanting more support from the parents, not just in general; this is a letter about a family relationship and how to make it work.

Readers who have dealt with dynamics like this, how did you deal with it? What advice would you give the student on addressing the dynamics of the relationship?

12 Comments

  1. the advice in this one reads to me like amy thought “okay, this person’s mother is saying the wrong things, so i’m going to say the things i think the mother SHOULD say.”

    my mother and i had very difficult interactions for most of my life. it was actually only when we both got diagnosed with ADD last winter that we started to understand what it was that made us feel like two cats being rubbed against each other the wrong way. it’s been strange, though mostly pleasant, learning that a lot of our anxiety was neurological and that both my putting my homework off to the last moment and mom’s freaking out that i was putting off my homework to the last moment were coping mechanisms for the same symptoms.

    before that, i have to admit that i mostly dealt with it by lying. “oh, yes, of course i finished my homework! did it the moment it was assigned, just like you suggested. later i’m going out with friends. no, not the friends you hate, NEW friends. totally different. perfect. named… uh… their names are kirsten, felicity, samantha, and molly*. you’d love them.” it didn’t work perfectly, but it did get my (loving, well-meaning, yet still infuriating) mother off my back so i could – as amy suggests – seek the support i needed elsewhere.

    (*the first four american girl dolls from pleasant company. i didn’t say i was a very GOOD liar.)

  2. I have nothing helpful to add, just a bit of a rant. The blanket command ‘don’t drink’ really pisses me off. Yep, alcohol can aggravate depression and for many people with depression (or other mental health issues) it is sensible to avoid drinking. But that is not true of all people with depression, and there is no way for the advice giver to know what impact it will have on the mood of this individual. You know who can judge whether they should drink? The student themselves, based on their own experience, and own assessment of the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol – and even if it does make them more depressed, then it’s still their decision. And as you said, s.e. smith, the question asked was not about coping with depression in college, so it’s entirely irrelevant anyway.

    The pattern described in the letter of asking for support and getting nagged back is replicated in the advice column itself. So not helpful.

  3. My college dynamic with my parents was all about distancing. I’d had cancer all through high school, and had been using a wheelchair/crutches for all that time as well, so had been very dependent on them for things like transport, physical assistance, running interference with my high school, etc etc. Both of my parents also had severe mental health problems while I was sick (I, smartly, I guess, deferred until after I was physically more well to go totally batshit). So when I got to my elite college far from home, pretty much my dominant way of dealing with them was not to talk to them. I’d call less than the “appropriate” once a week, not tell them anything about my life, talk about the inconsequential things, blah blah blah. For me, at least, academics were the safe thing to talk about, though it sounds like this girl doesn’t have that fallback.

    The upside of this is that, now, a decade and a lot of therapy later, I have a pretty good relationship with my parents. I’ve figured out how to exist without feeling crushed by them, and that I can’t fix them. There’s probably some overlap here with the fact that I got more physically able during this time (I haven’t used assistance to walk, except after one injury, since spring of my freshman year). But they’ve been very much supporting my family financially for the past few years, and it, miraculously, hasn’t recreated all the old bad dynamics, so I guess something’s actually changed.

    I don’t have any better advice for the letter-writer than to take as much space as you can, and get well and figure yourself out. It might work, or it might not, but it’ll probably make the next little bit suck less.

  4. I had a similar relationship with my parents in college, although my grades did suffer because of undiagnosed ADD, depression, anxiety, and other issues. I wanted to be honest with them about my life, but when I was, they would gasp in horror that I couldn’t manage to be awake and dressed in time for my first class, which was at 11:00 a.m. I couldn’t figure out how to explain to them that it wasn’t the time of the class, it was getting ready for the day at all, and it felt like pulling teeth just to get myself out of bed.

    Now I’m having similar problems because although I’m out of college and I did manage to get my degree, I don’t have a full-time job, so my parents are still helping me out with money. I want to be honest with them that I’m waiting for a job I actually want before I apply (and of course there aren’t many jobs out there right now), but they think I should be applying to every job that I find out about, regardless of whether it has benefits or not (I NEED health benefits, for all the reasons described above), whether it’s full-time or not, whether it pays as much as my current job or not, and whether I would actually want to do it or not. (I have various conditions that make it difficult for me to be active for a long period of time, so I don’t want a job that involves a lot of physical activity, for one thing. I’m afraid that even a full-time job doing anything at all would be physically and emotionally exhausting, so I have a lot of fears involved with applying for any job.)

    And because they’re still helping me financially, I don’t feel like I have the freedom to do things my own way and reject their advice. It was the same way in college–they were paying for me to go to college, which was the only place I felt accepted and like I belonged, so I felt like I was never truly free of them because they could yank me from my chosen safe space at any moment. Now, I am terrified whenever they ask me about job searching–if I don’t give the right answer, is this the time that they’ll decide I’m being lazy and stop helping me?

    I’m guessing Frustrated probably has similar issues, if hir parents are paying for all or part of hir education. It’s hard to be completely free from your parents when they still have financial leverage over you. I agree with Amy’s advice to set boundaries on how much nagging the student will listen to before disengaging with the conversation, but the rest of the advice seems kind of out of the blue, especially the line about alcohol. Frustrated Freshman didn’t mention drinking at all, so why bring it up?

  5. The bit about joining clubs to “bring you in contact with other students outside the classroom.”

    All the advice not dealing with the parents is irrelevant and patronizing.

    Being depressed does not mean you don’t have friends. And sometimes the pressure to have a “normal” college social life can make you feel worse – I’m getting all As, but I’m not in any clubs! (or for me, why don’t I care?)

  6. Great advice from folks above (and what strange advice from Amy – it’s like a grab bag of different ‘lectures for students with depression’ soundbytes in a lot of ways). The ‘don’t drink’ piece is just gratuitous, condescending and offensive, and a really negative way to close things out.

    The only parts I can add to what folks have said above are that I’ve found it really helpful to have stock phrases prepared – thinking of scenarios ahead of time so that I’m not trying to react in the moment is very necessary for me, and having responses at hand keeps things from spiraling out of control. For hir situation, statements like “Hearing criticism like that stresses me out/ hurts me – I know you’re wanting to help, but this isn’t helpful to me at this point. Why don’t we talk about what’s going on in your life for a little bit?”

    Also, it may not be possible for hir parents to be supportive around some of those emotionally laden right now, so if the letter-writer is interested in getting whatever support zie can, I’d recommend thinking of areas that aren’t minefields, and consciously using those topics to feel supported and buoyed. It may not make setting boundaries about personal topics and academics any easier, but hopefully it’ll at least create some support outside of all of that.

  7. Re: parents – I actually manipulate my mother slightly in this regard (which makes me feel awful and guilty, especially in light of the fact that we’re very close, but is better than the alternative.) I’ve noticed she has a bit of a tendency to play devil’s advocate. Which is to say, if I tell her that I messed something up (e.g. didn’t manage to go to uni one day, which happens reasonably often) but talk about how optimistic I am that it won’t happen again and try to play it down, she’ll tell me it’s really awful I did that and be pessimistic about it and nag at me and generally make me feel horrible (especially because generally when I tell people things like that I’m trying to convince myself as much as anyone else). On the other hand, if I approach the issue pessimistically and talk about how awful it is and how I’m so sick of this happening etc. she’ll try to cheer me up, which is what I need at that moment. As a result, if I frame things the right way conversations with her about shit that’s been happening are good things for my mental state.

    I will also, occasionally, lie by omission but that tends to leave a very nasty taste in my mouth and I can’t lie directly (so lying by omission tends to be telephone conversations in which I frantically hope she’s not going to ask specific questions.)

    It’s also got better over the years and definitely since diagnosis, now that we have conclusive evidence it’s not just me being lazy or whatever and I’ve started talking to her about strategies I’m trying out.

    Agreed, incidentally, on the advice about depression being weird and unwanted and patronising. I’d also like to point out that, ironically – and I can attest to this from first-hand experience when it comes to Britain – refusing to drink alcohol can have a severe effect on making friends and other social contacts in an environment where going out to get drunk is a standard way of interaction. I pretty much didn’t make any friends at /all/ in my first year at uni because I didn’t like alcohol and didn’t like going out and didn’t like noisy environments, and I still often feel like an outsider because I don’t drink much and never to get drunk. As a result, “don’t drink” and “make contact with other students” are two pieces of advice that can be contradictory.

  8. Until she got to the part about clubs and not drinking, I thought Amy’s advice was sound. While the writer asked about how to deal with the parental relationship, she also mentioned her depression, and as you point out, the two can’t be separated. She needs support from her parents that she’s not getting, and that increases her sense of isolation, which very likely increases her depression.

    When I was younger and going through untreated abuse-related stuff, I knew that there were therapists out there, but I needed someone to actually *tell* me to go and see one, and I needed to know that a therapist would be an ally familiar with the problems I was facing. So often, depression can cause people to feel immobilized and alone, as though there is no one to help, no one who will understand, and no one else in the world who has ever gone through the same things. Telling the young woman that a counselor would be familiar with her relatively common predicament seems like a very empathetic and necessary thing to do.

  9. Rachel, you make a good point.

    I never would have known about the psychological services offered at my school if I hadn’t been cutting through the building for about two years. If someone had told me to check it out, to see if my school offered it, I probably would have made some phone calls. But otherwise, even for, or especially for?, those of us who have dealt with depression probably wouldn’t even think about it.

    And the schools never announce it or anything. It should be part of freshman orientation – we’re told about ways to get help with schoolwork and that’s it. That’s the only help a freshman will need, yessirree bob!

  10. I could weep. Ten years on and I still haven’t found the answer.

  11. So often, depression can cause people to feel immobilized and alone, as though there is no one to help, no one who will understand, and no one else in the world who has ever gone through the same things. Telling the young woman that a counselor would be familiar with her relatively common predicament seems like a very empathetic and necessary thing to do.

    Yeah, I could have used someone to tell me that my freshman year of college. I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone to do so, and certainly it wasn’t part of the school orientation materials.

    The drinking stuff is out of line; am I remembering correctly – is Amy the same one who had a terrible, terrible answer semi-recently telling a woman who got raped at a frat party that it was her fault for drinking? If it’s the same person, her drinking comment is even more ominous in light of that to me.

  12. I faced a similar dynamic, and the biggest thing I can think of is to tell her, “it doesn’t matter how well you do, your mother may never support you. That sucks, but it also doesn’t mean you can’t find support or have a relationship with your mother, though it may never be the relationship you want and deserve. Mourning the loss of the parent you wish you had and negotiating the relationship with the parent you do have will be an on-going struggle, but it is possible and potentially rewarding.”
    I kept believing for years that if I was just more perfect it would work, or if I could just make her understand how much her criticisms hurt me my mother would stop. In the end, though, the mother is responsible for her behavior, not the child. The first-year here sounds like she’s got it together, except that she’ll need to figure out what relationship she can have with her parents and alternative sources of support.
    I’d particularly suggest looking for external mentors in the field, or older adults who had experienced depression. One of the things that helped me hold on during college was a woman who came and spoke about the accommodations she got in the work world for her mental illness. She gave me her card, and offered supportive words that no one else figured out to say. Biological parents aren’t the only ones who can fill the roles they ought to. It wasn’t until later, when I met other children of narcissists, that I found good role-models for setting boundaries and finding support.

    To my mind, that response sounds kind of dismissive of the letter writer, like she doesn’t know what she wants. The answer won’t be happy, because there probably isn’t a good answer, but at the very least it should have addressed the mother’s behavior and not just the daughter’s. It may be that the parents are paying for college, complicating the issue, but the letter writer didn’t mention that at all.