"I don't think my mom loves me," my student said.
I sat up a little straighter. I've learned not to shut the kids down right away even if what they say is obviously untrue, so I asked my favorite question: "Can you say more about that?"
"Every time I start to talk about how anxious I am, she just blows up and yells at me to stop. It makes me feel like she doesn't care how I'm feeling."
I know this mother loves her daughter deeply, so I made some sympathetic noises and said I was sure that there was more to the story. When I met with the mother, I casually asked whether she had any anxiety about the college process.
She said, "Oh yes, with four kids to keep track of, it's a lot!"
I said, "What do you do when you feel anxious?"
She said firmly, "I go running."
I probed, "Do you ever think about why you're anxious and try to deal with your feelings?"
She said even more firmly, "I go running!"
I noticed that her knuckles were literally white as she gripped the edge of my office table.
The next time the student came in, I said, "You know, I think your mom gets mad when you talk about your anxieties because she's also very anxious. I think she's pushing your anxiety away since it's all she can do to deal with her own."
The student thought for a moment, then said, "I never thought about that. I never thought that it might just be about her."
I smiled and sighed with relief. "Is there anyone else you could talk to you when you're anxious, like another family member or a sane friend?"
She said, "My dad is pretty calm. I could try talking to him." She paused, "But I love my mom. I want her to know how I'm feeling."
I felt chagrined. Here I had only been thinking about a practical solution. My wonderful student was thinking about maintaining a relationship with her mom. A warm and fuzzy feeling begin to grow inside me. I said, "Why don't you try talking to your dad when you're feeling anxious. Then after you feel better, you can tell your mom, 'I talked to Dad about (fill in the blank). Now I feel better, and I'm going to do (fill in the blank) about it.' That way you can share how you're feeling and help your mom be less anxious because you dealt with it and have a plan to move forward."
My student smiled brightly. At the session after that, she told me things with her mom were much better.
This is an encouraging story about a student who's learning that parents' reactions are not always about their children. I wish I could say it was a story about a parent learning the same thing. But the mother's white-knuckle grip on her running and the edge of my table suggested she had achieved a razor-thin balance that I didn't feel comfortable disturbing. I hope that one day she will learn to face her own anxieties and work through them as well as her daughter already does.
It can be hard for students to understand that their parents are people too and that their lives don't revolve around their children. It's important that we understand that about ourselves and help others see that sometimes it's just not about them. Admitting that can be a big relief to both of us!