A student wrote to me with this problem:
I would say that I share a pretty good relationship with my parents. But I face this problem where when I tell my mother about things that bother me, she’d somehow make it about her. I could say, “I’m very stressed,” she’d say, “I’m also very stressed,” then make the entire conversation about her.
My parents always encourage us to share with them our problems because they know what happens when parents and children drift apart. But when she responds like that, it’s just annoying and it’s affecting my relationship with her. What can I do?
There are two possible reasons I can think of.
(1) The first is that she’s just trying to connect with you by stating something common that you both share. People of different generations will say and do things to express love and concern that seem insane to younger people. You know how some old people always like to state the obvious but in the form of a question?
For example, an old auntie might see you leaving the house and she’ll say, “Going out ah?” It always annoys me because I used to perceive it as the auntie being nosey. But then I took a module about Chinese anthropo-linguistics and learnt that it was a common way for that generation of people to express concern. So I stopped getting upset by those questions.
I do find it very sad that many old people’s expressions of concerns are misunderstood by my generation and yours. There’s been a sharp break in the transmission of culture and it’s so easy to misunderstand people older than us.
So, it could be an expression of care, her way of saying that she can understand and/or relate to your problem. That’s one possible reason.
(2) The second possible reason is that she might feel lonely not being able to share her problems. Either because she’s been the one actively listening to other people but there is no suitable person who will listen to her, or she feels that her role as a mother means she can’t share everything that bothers her to you (not wanting to burden you with it). So sometimes, her saying things like that is a form of venting.
Two very different possibilities. It does help to be more patient. And I guess if you can, you can attempt to form a closer connection by offering to listen to her problems if she has anything that does bother her. Knowing that you care enough to ask how she’s doing will touch her deeply.