Carolyn Hax: Parent feels like the ‘puppet’ of son who cancels plans


Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My son will make a date to call or visit, then cancel at the last minute. I’ve told him I do not like this, but he continues with this behavior. He says he needs time to think about what he is going to do with his life and can’t communicate for two or three weeks.

I want to visit with my son, but I feel like I’m a puppet on his string.

Anonymous: I know from experience that plan-and-cancel behavior can be a sign of someone struggling with anxiety, depression or similar.

Even if he doesn’t have a specific health condition, there’s an excellent chance that this is about his own struggles, not a problem with you personally — but your seeing it as something he’s doing to you can drain any compassion from your response, which can fuel his anxiety more.

This is not to defend what he’s doing, just to explain why he might be doing it. (Standing people up is still not okay.)

If this sounds accurate, consider the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Helpline, 800-950-6264, or Explore how to support him vs. becoming another thing stressing him out, which is what I suspect has happened, though you mean well. Be just as available, but take the pressure away.

· This was me. I have depression and anxiety (successfully treated), and I just don’t like to leave the house. Once I’m out the door I’m fine, but I also have good friends who accommodate me. They jump in the car and don’t pressure me for reciprocity. For my part, I push myself out the door as much as I can, and I also try to make it great for them when they come to me: feed them, make them cozy.

All of which is to say: If you can, go to him. Bring a snack, a smile, an attitude that coming to him is a service you’re happy to do.

· The son may equate communication with you with a bunch of questions and advice regarding what he is doing with his life. If he is trying to figure that out on his own terms, in accordance with his values, not yours, then he may be making the plan out of love but canceling because he has made no progress toward deciding his future (or none you would be pleased with) and doesn’t want to have to defend his life.

Maybe promise to stay off those topics and see whether he goes through with the call/get-together.

· I went through a rough patch with my mom, where the very thought of seeing her filled me with existential dread. It was the compounding of many years of lovingly overbearing mothering and the sense that, in my mid-20s, I still saw the world through her eyes and directed my life by her approval. I realized the extent of my codependency in therapy. It could be your son is responding to something similar.

I cannot stress this enough, though: Through it all, I still loved and appreciated my mom. I just needed to break away to figure out how to be an adult without her voice in my head. Let him have his space, and he’ll come back when he’s ready.

· I highly recommend the book “Raising Human Beings” by Ross Greene (or anything by him, really). He’s more about younger kids, but he talks about having empathy for others and understanding where they are coming from.

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