“I need to point out a language change I’d like you to make.” he said.
I was sitting across from my son’s new therapist. I’d spent the past forty minutes describing my son’s challenges and our current status.
“When you talk about your son’s schooling, you keep saying ‘we’ and ‘our,’ I want you to use ‘you’ and ‘your’ instead. Put the responsibility for his schooling onto him instead of both of you.”
The moment the therapist said it, I could see how such a small-seeming language shift could matter. Every time I said “we need to get that essay done.” I was shouldering part of the burden of the essay, and it is really easy for kids to just let mom carry things for them. They’ve been doing it since they were small for everything from coats, to toys, to expenses.
Since that appointment, I’ve been working to make the shift, and the effort has shown me how often I included myself into my kids’ struggles instead of letting my them own those struggles. I think I began it because I didn’t want them to feel alone against hard things. I also wanted to frame the struggle as “us against the mental health issues” instead of mom vs kid. It is also probable that I was including myself in an un-self-aware attempt to have more control over the situation. I feel pretty sheepish about that last bit, because I’ve been saying for years that I needed my kids to have some life-solutions that didn’t involve me, while I was simultaneously auto-including myself into their every struggle.
I’m only a few weeks into making this language shift and it is still hard because habit is strong. Yet I’m already feeling the differences in how I think about my kids and their challenges. I’m realizing that every time I help my fledgling adults, what I’m actually doing is slowing down their learning process by absorbing some of the blow of natural consequences. Usually I’m helping to appease my own anxiety, so that the terrible stories of possible outcomes don’t come to pass, or so that I don’t have to watch them struggle. It is hard to be able to help and to let someone else struggle anyway. Yet that is exactly what my kids need me to do for their long term good. Helping makes today better, but it prevents the development of resilience that will let them survive their futures.
There is a part of my mind that wants to dwell on the What Ifs around this language shift. What if I’d learned this five years ago? Was I wrong to do so much helping when they were struggling so hard? Can I do it now only because we’re far enough removed from suicide risk? Did my use of inclusive language in their early teens literally save their lives, or is it the reason we’re here with adults who can’t fly on their own yet? I can’t answer any of those questions and dwelling on them doesn’t really help anyone. We are where we are, and the best way forward is to accept where we are and focus on moving forward from here.
And for right now, moving forward requires me to learn how to change the words I use on a daily basis.