I had a problem similar to the one described by "Stressed Out by Mom," the college student whose mother calls to unload her problems. A therapist taught me a technique that worked wonders. When Mom called and complained, instead of sympathizing (which is why she called in the first place), I'd mirror her complaint back to her so she didn't receive the positive feedback she was seeking.
When she said, "Your sister doesn't know how to save money," I'd reply, "So what you're saying is my sister doesn't know how to save money." However, when she said something positive, like, "Isn't it a lovely day?" I'd be sure to give her all kinds of positive feedback. "It sure is! I'll bet your marigolds are really blooming now!" It worked like a charm and preserved my relationship with my mother. She quickly lost interest in the topics that didn't bring positive feedback, and we'd end up talking about all kinds of interesting things.
This method is tried-and-true. It's based on behavioral psychology, and it works with spouses, kids, co-workers -- the applications are endless.
Tried It in Portland, Ore.
Thank you for the suggestion. I was unprepared for the deluge of mail I received from readers who identified with "Stressed's" problem. Read on:
I'm a 57-year-old woman who has had the same problems with my now 76-year-old mother since childhood. Please tell "Stressed Out" that she must take immediate steps to set healthy boundaries. She should schedule an appointment at the student health center and talk to a psychologist about her problem.
I am the only family member still on speaking terms with Mother. Her eight siblings, the folks at the senior center and people from her former church no longer talk to her. I'm the only one she has left to lash out at -- and if I try to set boundaries now, the breach it will create will leave her with no support system at all.
Wish I'd Done It in Fredericksburg
Perhaps the suggestion offered by the next writer will be of help to you.
I have a relative who is an alcoholic. He calls to ramble, complain and generally make me miserable. I relieve my stress by playing computer games, reading a magazine or watching TV while he's talking. The trick is to otherwise engage your mind while uttering an occasional response. It works. When he hangs up, I have no idea what he said, but he is happy and I'm not stressed. He doesn't wants answers -- just someone to unload on.
Coping in Bloomington, Ind.
Not everyone has your level of tolerance. Read on:
I made similar calls to my daughter. They would begin as friendly calls to chat and nose-dive from there. I hope that girl's mother locates a therapy group. Maybe she can find some help and comfort there. My daughter eventually made it plain that if I continued to cry when I called, she would not talk to me. I know she screens her calls and often doesn't pick up. So now I talk to the women in the group about my problems. Most of them have daughters too. When I see mothers, daughters and grandmothers all together I am happy for them, but sometimes I'm jealous.
Screened Out in Sacramento
I'm pleased you're getting emotional support from your therapy group. It may be healthier for all concerned. Many people have confessed that they, too, screen their calls because they haven't the courage to set boundaries. However, no one ever solved problems by dodging them.
Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips. Write Dear Abby at www.DearAbby.com or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, Calif. 90069.
(c)2004, Universal Press Syndicate