One year ago today…
I went into labour with my daughter.
She wasn’t born until a couple of days later. That’s a whole other story.
I’m sharing this because…well, because I want to and I can. But also because it fills me with emotion and today we are talking emotion.
Smooth segue. I know.
Also, in these newsletters we are sorta always talking about the really difficult, sometimes hugely painful things we do for our kids because we love them fiercely.
I laboured 52 hours. I look forward to my first 52 hour long fight.
Seems silly, but I do.
Why? Because it’s a right of passage for both parents and their kids. It’s a testament to our grit and our love and weirdly, it’s a hallmark of an actively involved relationship.
That active love is what fuels you to keep going when you veer off your path. How you feel about your kids even when they are under your skin is a love that knows no bounds.
That is why you are reading this. Because you never stop trying, no matter how exhausted and overwhelmed and scared (terrified!) and angry and frustrated you get. You wake up, and you do it again.
You are warriors. Don’t forget that. Let me remind you how important you are to your tweens and teens. It’s tough and you are still doing it. Take a moment to seriously thank yourself and appreciate all that you do and all that you sacrifice.
Last week we talked about responding to fact with fact. Today I have another tip to help you navigate the emotional side of family fights.
Just as a refresher the two rules to improve any conversation are:
1. Respond to fact with fact
2. Respond to emotion with emotion
Last week we learned that when we respond to fact with fact we not only de-escalate a tense situation, we help everyone in the room better regulate AND we maintain our assertiveness and our boundaries. Another bonus is that it buys us some time before we have to deliver potentially disappointing verdicts to our tweens and teens.
Let’s now look at responding to emotion with emotion. But first, we need to understand the two ways that emotions show up in conversations:
The explicit way, meaning someone verbally states an emotion, as in “I feel….”
The implicit way, as in someone exudes emotion through their tone and body language.
We’re all really good at the second one. Sometimes it happens without us even noticing it. This implicit emotion (tone and body language) also has a much stronger effect on our conversations than explicit emotion.
This is especially true for tweens and teens who are constantly assessing your voice, body posture, and vocal inflections. They do this because it is a survival instinct to assess people for safety and comfort. These cues let them know whether someone is available to them and thus whether they matter and belong.
We also asses our teens because we are always on the prowl for attitude and back-talk. Admit it, it’s true.
And what do we do when we spot it? We respond with a fact!
That’s right, as we learned last week, when someone states a fact we tend to react emotionally, but when someone is emotional, we become very factual.
Why is this a problem?
Put quite simply, when we respond factually to an emotional display, we are invalidating someone’s need. As a result, their emotion escalates to the point of them possibly becoming dysregulated.
Emotion:OMG I can’t believe this. I had plans! Why do you always do this! ARGH. I’m so stressed, this is so unfair! No one else has to help with supper ever. You’re the worst.
Response: You are overworked. You cannot take that tone with me. You still have to help with supper.
Emotion: Storms off, crying, yelling, slamming doors.
But wait, you say! Isn’t saying “You seem really upset” a fact? Isn’t that what you told us to do when we validate someone’s emotions?
Yes that is exactly what to do. You help them name what they are feeling.
Helping someone name a feeling, and insisting they are feeling a certain way, however, are not the same thing.
Helping someone organize their feelings is one of the critical roles we play as parents.
Take a closer look at that response: You are overworked. You cannot take that tone with me. You have to help with supper.
While each statement is factual, they lack two important components: compassion and curiosity.
Compassion and curiosity are necessarily when responding emotionally to someone who is in an emotional state.
When we say “you can’t take that tone with me”, or “you are still helping with supper”, we have completely neglected to check in on their emotional state Teens need their feelings to be validated before they can shift gears. Can you say these things? Absolutely. That’s parenting. Just say them AFTER you have attended to the emotion.
So why can’t we state how someone feels as a fact? I thought I was validating their emotions.
Simply saying “you seem upset” is not 100% a fact. It is a perception. It sounds like splitting hairs on paper, but in practice it feels like dismissiveness. When we state a fact, we are not remaining curious about what the other person is experiencing. When we show we aren’t curious, we are saying we don’t care how they feel. We are saying “my perception of how you are matters more than your experience of how you are”.
Fact vs Perception
Facts are not disputable. Perceptions invite clarification and therefore they can open the door more discussion and thus better understanding. Better understanding is the foundation to improved communication.
For example, they may correct you and say “I’m not upset!” (they may even say it with a tone of frustration, further illuminating just how much they need you to listen and understand better). In which case you can then clarify and say “Oh you seemed upset, what is it you were feeling in that moment?”
When we insist that someone is feeling something (“you are overworked!” or “You are angry”) it’s like saying “I can’t be bothered to try to understand what you need, but I don’t like your overworked or angry behavior so stop it.
When we phrase it as a perception, on the other hand, (“You seem really angry right now”) it’s as if we are actually asking “Is that true? Is that what you are feeling? What are you feeling?” This comes across like, “I genuinely care, I want to better understand you so I can be here and support you”. It also offers them a doorway to clarify or let you into their world even more by responding with “yes, I’m angry because….” or “No, I’m worried and scared because…”
This is a healthy connection, even if it feels uncomfortable because you are dealing with difficult emotions.
When we respond to someones emotional expression only with “You cannot talk to me that way”, we are effectively saying “You cannot have these emotions around me. These emotions are not allowed.”
Of course that’s not actually what you are saying. But that is how it is received by tweens and teens who have yet to figure out the differentiation between how they express something and what they feel.
By helping them through the emotion first, you teach them that how they express their emotions matters. That is is OK to feel what they feel, but that care must be taken in how they behave as a result. These are simple life skills.
When we respond with a fact such as “don’t talk to me that way”, we are responding only to their behaviour (how they express something) not their actual emotion (what they are experiencing). As such we are not attuned to their need.
Finally, responding to emotion with emotion means we have to watch HOW we respond not just what we respond with. We have to offer emotion.
How we say something matters more than what we say.
In order for our validating phrase (“you seem upset”) to have the most positive impact, we have to state it with our own calm, warm, compassionate tone of voice and body language.
Saying, “well you seem really upset” in a cold, dismissive way is, as you can imagine, going to agitate them even more. They will feel ignored and perhaps mocked. They have not found that safe, warm place to land. They feel their emotions and thus their emotional needs cannot be met by you. They will shut down and shut you out. They may turn the emotion inward and not know how to cope.
Your warm, welcoming, calm, loving demeanour can counteract their fear and overwhelm and help them de-escalate even if you don’t know the right words to say.