Your daughter (although I use daughter throughout this article it could also be your son) asks to speak with you alone. You go into the living room and within minutes she’s very distressed. She bares her soul, revealing a deep unhappiness. What do you do?
You may well be caught off guard. You had no idea she was this unhappy. Not only that you are thrown because you thought she was going to try and wheedle a favour out of you.
In this moment it is as if you are both gasping for air as you go under. If you don’t grab the life ring and breathe first you will be of no use to her. All that may take a split second but it is the difference between responding and reacting.
Taking that moment, allows you time to acknowledge your own feelings. You probably feel many emotions: worry; fear as well as deep sadness about her distress. It is easy to be overwhelmed by such strong feelings. You can find a way through by practising a moment of self care,
Stopping to check in with your heart, you can feel the full range of emotions. Taking another moment you can find the space to be with them all. As you steady yourself you have the room to consider the different emotions your teen is feeling.
In these moments, reassurance can come by repeating back to her some of the words she has said. Using a phrase like “What I hear you saying is that you hate school.”
Paraphrasing in this way works because it provides clarity and it gives you some more time to adjust to this new information. It also fulfils one of the basic human needs which is to be heard.
Ask yourself what you would need in this kind of situation
People often make the mistake of thinking those in distress need a solution. Remind yourself that your daughter is naturally creative, resourceful and whole. Perhaps the only words needed are “I see you.”
You may find it triggers old memories in you. I see myself as a young girl who found the courage to share with my Mum how I felt when I was very upset. The image that comes is of me as a young girl standing 100 feet from her mother whose back was all she could see as she sobbed.
In that moment I yearned to be held and told it would all be ok. Touch is so important. A study in Sweden in 2017 showed that embracing and patting young people in distress has a soothing effect on them.
The study explains that the soothing occurs because the interaction gives the young person a greater feeling of security. Coming back to your teen you may want to ask your daughter if she would like a hug. Respecting her space also disarms her “prickly porcupine.”
Touch in this way helps to communicate emotions and maintain relationships. If you have ever watched primates grooming each other you know it’s their way of deepening their bond to one another.
By giving yourself time to process what is unfolding in front of you you are much more likely to respond rather than react to your teen’s display of emotions. These tools are effective because they will help them feel seen, heard, accepted and understood. By responding in this way, you are recognising that there is nothing “to fix.” In this way you are saving deposits in the bank of your relationship that you may need to draw on at a later date.