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Ask Ellie: Gentle outreach can help stressed parent

It is possible to step in and help calm the situation when a parent loses it in public

Dear Ellie: Recently I was sitting on a plane with my teenage son in a seat beside me, lucky to have had enough points to travel business class, and to be on an airline that hadn’t the crowding and long waits that passengers on some other airlines have endured.

But in the seat just across the aisle from me, a mother was loudly berating her teenage daughter (likely 15) for drinking high-sugared-fizzy sodas, and eating potato chips, just as my own same-age son had done before he became absorbed in a movie.

The mother’s tirade was embarrassingly harsh and easily overheard. “You’re disgusting! Eating that bad stuff and gulping it down! I’m embarrassed to be sitting next to you!”

I felt sorry for the girl. As a mother of a teenager with similar tastes, I’d already made peace with myself that these choices which he’s long been taught are unhealthy, are just a show of “freedom” when it’s possible. But it’s not a battleground to die on, nor overreact.

I can’t help but wonder why this mother would choose to embarrass her own daughter at a vulnerable time in the mid-teen life of a girl, and also reveal herself as a harping parent.

I cringed in my seat as the woman repeated her blistering criticisms. But I also still cringe, wondering how could I have helped this young girl without causing the mother to overreact to me.

Do you have advice on how to deal with such a situation?

Sorry for Not Helping

Short of enough evidence of ongoing verbal child abuse in this mid-teen’s life, your reaction would have to include a gentle response by contrast. You’d start by a friendly approach showing some commonality.

Example: “My son also chooses those fizzy, sugary drinks when he can. But he knows that we don’t have them at home and we eat healthy foods because that limits any serious, long-term harm.”

In other words, you present an understanding approach, which, if done gently, disarms her. Do not engage in her comments about the daughter or the choices teenagers sometimes make, but rather, casually calm her. This is a kindness to both mother and daughter.

If you find the exchange is going well, you might even describe a homemade meal your teenager really likes, or talk about how making a meal from scratch together (e.g., pizza) makes mealtimes more enjoyable.

You’ll be doing that young girl a much-needed favour. And, hopefully, the over-wrought mother as well.

Dear Ellie: My sister and I are arguing about an evening dress which she borrowed from a cousin 30 years ago. While recently decluttering, she found the dress. She maintains that, because our cousin never asked for the dress back, it’s hers.

I think she owes our cousin an apology with the return of the dress, dry-cleaned, with all new buttons. (A missing button is why my sister didn’t return the dress promptly. She couldn’t find an exact match. She put the dress away and forgot about it).

Am I right that she should still return it?

Sibling Conflict

Yes, that’s the “right” thing to do. But don’t count on her returning the dress, and here’s why: 1) embarrassment; 2) stubbornness; and 3) not wanting you to tell her what to do.

Stop arguing about it. Perhaps the cousin has also forgotten about the dress. For your sibling relationship, it’s best if you forget it, too.

Dear Ellie: My son’s spending the summer at my cottage with his girlfriend and her more-than-three dogs.

She won’t let him do anything without her as she needs help with the dogs. When I’m talking with her, she counters whatever I’ve stated.

Her frequent, annoying response: “Let’s have an adult conversation.” She’s at my property because her own family doesn’t want all those dogs with them, and my son prefers my cottage. What do I do?

Stuck with Them

Mostly, you keep your son happy, if possible, in this situation. You’ve already accepted the dogs (for now), and you can try chatting differently with his girlfriend.

Ask her, gently and sincerely, what she means by an “adult conversation.” Perhaps she feels you’re on her case too much. If so, ease up, summer’s half gone.

It’s wiser to avoid a blow-up which the couple would blame on you. Next summer, invite some friends-only for several weeks. And visit your son wherever he lives.

Ellie’s tip of the day

Sometimes, a smile and gentle outreach to a stressed parent can calm the situation and save a child from harsher consequences.

Send relationship questions to ellie@thestar.ca.