David Coleman: Understanding our children's volatile emotional world can strengthen your family
David Coleman on how a grasp of our children's volatile emotional world can strengthen family ties
One of the main aims of listening is to gain understanding. In an ideal world, we will be able to see things from the other person's perspective. This is known as empathy. This ability to show understanding of others becomes central to healthy relationships and is the cornerstone of resolving conflict and increasing connectedness. So, in this fourth and final article of the series on communication, I wanted to focus on empathy and understanding, building on the skills of listening and the awareness of our non-verbal communication.
Many teenagers can take on stresses and pressures from their peers, their school, their sports and their other activities. Some will, stoically, bear all these strains without telling anyone, others wear their hearts on their sleeve, regularly sharing the load with friends or family. Sharing is important. It is a healthy coping strategy and supports their resilience. Many of the life pressures that teenagers face do cause them stress or hurt. It is a natural reaction to just block down (or bottle up) our feelings about the experience.
Often this can lead to a real disconnection from our feelings. It is as if the link between the experience and the emotional reaction we have becomes severed, because we'd sooner forget the distress. While emotional numbing like this may offer a short-term solution, it can lead to more problems in the long term.
Unresolved or unprocessed feelings can become troublesome after time. It is like they remain stuck inside, bubbling away, only to blow up caused by some other small, negative, experience.
A simple example of this, from your own experience, might be feeling really annoyed with your boss. The anger bubbles under the surface, only to erupt in a row with your partner later that day over something unimportant. Your big, angry reaction comes as a release of your unresolved anger with your boss, but is misdirected later. Imagine if you have many such pressures, or negative experiences, and they all stay stuck inside. You could be setting yourself up for a messy concoction of turbulent emotions that might blow up unpredictably.
That happens to teenagers, too. Add in their hormonal development and the emotional ability that comes with that, and you have a potent mix of volatile feelings.
One of the most useful things we can offer teenagers, then, is the opportunity to vent those strong feelings in a safe and appropriate forum. Empathising with them offers this kind of emotional support with great success. By making efforts to understand their feelings, we help them to understand and express their own feelings… without blowing up. To get the point of understanding we rely on all the skills of active listening that I wrote about last week. We need to use attentiveness, repetition, verbal and non-verbal encouragement, summarising and clarifying to help them to talk.
Once they are talking, we can use our knowledge of them, our interest in their lives, to try to connect in with, or identify, the unspoken feelings that our teenagers may be struggling to access.
We do this in simple ways, by making statements, guessing at the feelings that might go along with the tales they are telling us. Those statements are best phrased using words like "I wonder if you feel…" or "I'm guessing you feel…" or "it seems to me you feel…" or "you look/sound like you feel…". Be wary of sounding too definitive and so avoid phrases like, "I know you feel…"
So, for example, imagine your son is complaining about school and one teacher who piles on the homework. He might have complained that the teacher never corrects the homework and punishes hard if it isn't done. You might pick up how upset he is about the teacher. You might guess, then, that he feels that this is unjust and may be angry that the teacher punishes harshly. So these become the kind of feelings that you try to connect your son to.
You may say, "you sound really upset about your teacher, like as if she is unfair in giving homework she doesn't even correct…" or you might say "I guess you're really cross with her for all the homework she gives and a bit afraid of the punishments she doles out".
In many ways, it matters less whether you are correct in your guesses. If you are right, it might free them up to say more and to process the feeling a bit. If you are wrong, they will probably correct you and then tell you what the feeling really is.
Again, the key goal in using empathy is to help your son or daughter to access the feelings that "fit", or are congruent with, the experiences they had. For example, if your daughter loses her camogie match and is in foul form, a simple connection to her disappointment might offset a lot of bad feeling. Saying "you seem really disappointed, what a shame after all your effort" could help her to identify that disappointment is at the heart of her bad mood.
Over the course of the series we have looked at elements of communication such as the tone of voice we use, our eye contact, gestures and active listening skills. My goal for you is that you can put all these elements together to enable you to empathise more with your teenagers, showing them you might be able to understand their world and the pressures they face.
Being a teenager can be hard. Having a parent who can offer a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and some understanding of their emotional world can be a real buffer to that hardship.