Dear Other Dad —
I need to have a serious talk with my mom about something difficult but whenever I try to bring things up, she doesn’t take it seriously. She treats me like I’m a child and talks to me that way. But I need her to listen. What do I do?
Sign me — RIDM
It’s really frustrating when you don’t feel heard. There are some parents who simply will not be able to hear because they find it difficult to listen to others, period. There are others who try to listen but have trouble because, instead of hearing the young adult before them, they keep hearing the voice of a child for whom they once made all the decisions. Some hear more than their kids think but need time to process, especially if the topic involves change.
How then to increase your chances of being listened to? When you have a serious subject to discuss and need to be sure that your message is getting through, it helps to have a strategy that limits outside distraction, encourages shared attention, and makes sure that the subject gets fully voiced.
It’s hard to achieve all that off-the-cuff. So here are three options for having conversations that can’t be casual.
Write a Letter and be Present When It’s Read
I learned this method from a close college friend whose mom had come up with a process for difficult conversations. Any family member with a concern wrote a letter about the issue and their feelings. The recipient or recipients would read the letter in the presence of the writer and, when finished, respond either in live conversation or by writing a letter back.
One upside to this approach is that the writer has control of making sure everything they mean to say is said; they don’t have to fear forgetting something in the heat of the moment because “the moment” comes only after the letter has been written. Requesting that a parent finishes reading the whole letter before responding precludes them from getting bogged down along the way with lots of questions or commentary; there will be time for both, but the first goal is laying out the full concern clearly.
You might, of course, just write a letter and not stick around for the reading, but I think there is a value in you witnessing the read. Having you there keeps the issue from being abstract; it is easier to dismiss an idea than a live person. Your physical presence and emotional vulnerability demonstrate your trust and encourage them to honor it.
If a letter feels foreign to you, you can do this entirely as a text thread. Have the thread broken into parts in your notes and then sit down with your mom and text it piece by piece, in the order you need. The downside to this is that if anyone else texts at the same time, you may have competition, so first set the boundaries: “Please don’t check other messages until we are finished.”
Find a setting where you can chat without a lot of outside distraction. Photo: Zen Chung for Pexels.
Make a Date of It
You’ve made clear that this is not just any conversation. If it’s worth seeking advice about, it’s definitely a discussion you don’t want to just wing. You need to make clear to your parent that you need their focus — and that they will have yours as well.
One way to do that is to not just drop the subject during TV time in the living room or unannounced while grocery shopping. Instead, choose a set amount of time that you can talk, uninterrupted, and a location that allows for conversation. Does your mom like Thai food? Make a date to go to lunch and tell her that you want to use that time for a discussion. Have an hour-long drive to a swim meet coming up? Ask her in advance if you can use that time for a chat. Or choose an outing to a setting your mom enjoys (a park? a nail salon? a coffee shop?) and set up a time to have the talk there.
This request for a defined talk time might make them nervous and they may press you to have the conversation the moment you ask (instead of waiting); it’s best if you can resist that impulse until you can discuss things more thoughtfully and with intentional conditions. If that’s the case with your mom, tell her that you need the time to gather your thoughts, and that because the subject is so important to you, you appreciate her letting you do this right.
When you finally get down to it, follow the common family rule of “no phones at the table” (or salon or beach or…). There are so many distractions literally at our fingertips now, that you are competing with everyone else who can reach them digitally and with all their notifications. (Words with Friends will not care that you should be the priority.) Having a phones-down rule allows you to dedicate this time to the subject at hand.
Set a time window that you both agree on (maybe a half-hour or an hour for starters), because that limit can alleviate the mental burden of a tough talk. If you know that there’s a natural respite when the check arrives or when you reach a destination (or whatever parameter you set), it may feel less overwhelming to start, and you can both catch your breath. If your mom wants to extend the talk and you are in agreement, then great — do it. But if either of you would rather stick to the established time frame and return to things later, no one needs to take it personally. No harm, no foul.
Bring Back-Up (but Not An Assassin)
You might feel like you’re not ready to tackle either of those options alone. Let’s face it: there is a power dynamic here, as parents typically call the shots. Because that is so common, many parents lapse into a habit of dismissing (or at least not taking seriously) their kids’ critiques or pleas. The principle of “as long as you are under my roof, it’s my rules” can end up functioning like cotton balls that plug up parent ears when they should be trying to listen.
That’s why it can be a boon to come to this conversation joined by a third party who understands your concerns and situation. What you shouldn’t do is bring someone who cannot be at all sympathetic or kind to your parent. Nobody likes being ganged up on, so if the conversation feels like a 2-on-1 you’re-doing-it-wrong fest, that’s more likely to shut your mom down, instead of opening her up.
If you have a family member or mutual friend who will come as your ally and as someone who understands your mom, this will likely help your mom feel more comfortable. Your wingperson can help your mom receive two messages at once: “you are valued” and “there are some things you need to hear.”
That makes it easier for you to do your job, which is to get your issues out in the open with clarity. With any of these methods (or any combination of them), you want to capitalize on this dedicated time by making sure everything you need to explain gets explained and any question you need to ask gets asked.
Here’s the thing: You can only do what you can do. Your mom, like any parent, might hear you and respond the way you wish or they might hear you but need some time to come around. It is also possible that they may never deliver the response you hope for — being heard doesn’t guarantee results.
But they won’t hear you at all if you don’t start the conversation.
Send questions for Your Other Dad to [email protected]
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Zen Chung for Pexels.