Sometimes young grown up children and young adults find themselves in a situation that they are either unable to or don’t want to share with their parents. Perhaps they are in a ‘trying out’ phase and want some outside advice, but don’t want to formalise anything by getting their parents involved. In social media parlance, “it’s complicated”. Sometimes, it is just easier to reach out to another sympathetic adult who is not directly related to you but still trusts you enough to confide in you.
I had such an experience recently, where my 20-year-old niece Priya [not her real name] confided in me about her current romantic relationship. While I was happy to be the recipient of her trust, the situation was full of moral dilemmas: Should I listen or tell her what to do? Should I tell her parents or respect her request for privacy? Should I treat her as an equal adult or a child to be protected? What would I tell her parents when they find out that I knew about the relationship but didn’t tell them? In the end, it all came down to one question—what is my role here?
The answer, I realised, lay in conversation. A conversation that would keep communication channels open. Clear and candid communication helps avoid emotionally charged actions—actions which could, by their nature, break up relationships and families. One difficult conversation goes a long way in preventing heartburn and misunderstandings.
Here are some of the things I learnt about dealing with this awkward and morally fraught situation.
Creating space: Listen without judgment
Nothing shuts down a soul-baring conversation faster than the realisation of being judged. This is especially true when you are talking across generations and across value systems. I find many from the younger generation remarkably astute and mature about their ambitions, both in their career and personal life. They know what they want and when they want it. They want to experiment, to try things out, to see if things ‘fit’, before making any decision. What they don’t want is someone telling them why they ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do something. This is true between parent-child, but becomes even more sensitive if it’s between a child and an adult who was approached. Whether you are the agony aunt or the wise uncle or any other sympathetic adult—what they want is a sounding board, not an authority reiterating the rules. So shrug off your boundaries and give them space. Be the rock for their insecurities and uncertainties. It may not be what you want to be, but it is what they need. Without this, there is no scope for a meaningful conversation.
Building the foundation: Trust, trust, trust
Respect the trust that has been reposed in you. It is a huge leap of faith for a youngster to open up to you. Respect that faith and the courage it took for them to communicate. At the same time, you have a responsibility to everyone who is affected by this conversation. Trust is critical, but it can’t be one-sided. They may ask you to keep the situation a secret, but it might not always be possible. As far as you can, keep their trust. If you feel that their parents need to be involved, tell them that you believe that is the best course of action. But be up front about whatever your decision is, and why you feel so. Give the youngster the space to debate it. If you break their trust, you may end up doing more harm than good.
The biggest pearl of wisdom: teaching responsibility
Being an adult means taking responsibility for your actions. If there is one ‘tell’ in this conversation, it is this. Explain to the young boy/girl the importance of action and consequence, and the fact that the responsibility of both lies with them. If they want to be treated as adults, they must act like adults. Help them make decisions by showing them options and explaining consequences. But be utterly steadfast in letting them make their own decision and taking responsibility for it. Set the example by explaining how you are taking your responsibility by accepting the consequences of your role in this conversation. Let them take ownership of their decisions. Decide together on whether the situation needs intervention, or if the youngster can manage on his or her own with some guidance.
Defining boundaries: Step back or step in?
While respecting the young adult’s need to test the waters, do not forget your responsibility as the mature adult. Giving them space to grow does not mean condoning activities that are harmful, illegal or otherwise undesirable. Make the decision based on your reading of the situation. Is it within moral and ethical boundaries to let them find their way, or do you or some other authority need to step in? If their role is to take responsibility for their behaviour, your role is to ensure that everyone involved, be it their parents, families or significant others, are not harmed. There is a time to step back and a time to step in. This is your action-consequence of commission or omission. Share your decision with the youngster and let them learn from your example.
In my case, my conversation with Priya started out awkwardly, and rather than an agony aunt, I just felt like a very nosy aunt! As we talked, I realised that treating her as an adult and adhering to these cardinal points kept the conversation flowing. As she opened up, I could see her visibly relax in my company. Priya admitted her relief in having an adult she could confide in. She had already thought about her future and all she had really wanted was someone who would listen to her. And all I wanted was for Priya to know that she was not alone. It was a difficult conversation to begin with, but in the end, it was well worth the time.
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