Monthly Archives: September 2017

She Wasn’t Being Silly

 

Paralyzed with fear, Kathleen stopped suddenly in her tracks. The trail she was hiking with her husband, Zach, had come to an unexpected fork. They were assured, back at the visitors center, that all trails would be clearly marked. For the most part, that proved to be true, but definitely not now.

Zach motioned to the right. “Let’s go this way,” he pressed.

Kathleen didn’t budge. “I just want to go back,” she said meekly.

“No, let’s keep going,” Zach insisted. “It’ll be alright.”

Kathleen—reduced to the emotional age of a six-year-old—started crying.  “I felt he wasn’t listening to me,” she said in our counseling session.

In truth, Zach was baffled. The intensity of her fear didn’t seem to match the circumstances. He tried to get her to snap out of it. “I told her she was being silly,” he said.

That tactic backfired. Her state of distress didn’t subside. In fact, it worsened.

What Kathleen really needed at that point was supportive understanding—empathy. The same soothing attention a six-year-old would need.

Kathleen’s reaction isn’t all that unusual. It can happen to all of us when we venture too far from our comfort zone. Any significant threat to our sense of security can trigger our  automatic fight-or-flight response. Instinctively, our bodies prepare us to do battle or run.

Kathleen’s automatic response was to flee. She turned to go. Zach went with her.

“I felt myself calming down,” she said, “even before we got back to the car.”

Unfortunately, Zach’s inner six-year-old wasn’t happy. “Living in Indiana, we don’t get a chance to hike in the mountains very often,” he said. “I felt it was a rare opportunity and that we should take advantage of it.”

Because Zach is adventuresome, he felt the thrill of a challenge when they came to the fork–the exact opposite of Kathleen’s experience.

In their therapy session, Kathleen was critical of Zach for taking risks, and Zach was critical of Kathleen for being too cautious and rigid.

For the sake of their relationship, they need to stop the criticism and appreciate how the other is different. Kathleen seeks security and predictability, while Zach seeks adventure and spontaneity. Neither is wrong—they’re just different.

In fact these differences attracted them to each other in the first place. She liked his daring adventurous spirit along with his optimistic, confident and light-hearted nature.

He was drawn to Kathleen’s practical, down-to-earth side. She’s an avid planner, and she likes structure. He appreciates how those very qualities keep him grounded and focused.

I’d say they’re well-matched. All they have to do is learn how to collaborate. It’s a skill they could have used on the mountain, and who knows, the final outcome may have been a win-win instead of a joint loss.

For starters, Zach could have utilized a more effective approach in helping Kathleen “snap out of it.” He would have used empathy.

People who are in a near-panicked state, cannot engage in an objective, problem-solving discussion. Their brain and their emotions must be calmed first. They can do that for themselves by walking away for a few minutes or by being comforted by another person.

Empathy naturally comforts. It entails stepping out of the brain and moving into the heart. An empathic ear seeks to understand someone at the emotional level. If I feel empathy for you, it means my heart goes out to you. I’m not detached from your pain—I’m with you in your pain.

At the foundation of empathy is listening. Looking warmly into Kathleen’s eyes, Zach could have asked, “What’s wrong?”

As she explained her fear, he wouldn’t interrupt, he wouldn’t downplay, he wouldn’t advise, lecture, attempt to fix, insult or criticize. He would simply listen attentively. He might not understand her fear of unmarked trails, but he does understand fear. That’s where he can connect with her experience and express understanding.

In their counseling session, Zach listened and in so doing learned the underlying cause of Kathleen’s intense reaction: Her sheltering mom never let her venture far from sight.

“She was always warning me,” she said, “telling me what awful things could happen to me.”

Kathleen also conveyed a painful incident when she was a young child involving a Ferris wheel. “I didn’t want to go on,” she said, “but my family made me.” She remembers being petrified and seeking refuge by lying face down on the floor while her stepfather shook the car and laughed at her. Her mother did nothing.

Her feelings weren’t listened to. She wasn’t comforted.

By the end of our session, Zach was able to do what Kathleen’s mother couldn’t.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Raw Truth from Teens

 

Let’s dispel a common myth about teenagers. They actually yearn to communicate with their parents, despite evidence to the contrary.

But communication must be a two-way street, and for a vast number of teenagers, that isn’t happening. It’s not so much a refusal to open up—instead, their silence is often rooted in discouragement because of something the parent is doing or not doing.

Nell, a 17- year-old client, put it succinctly as she expressed the frustration that many teenagers experience: “Parents think that just because they’re older, their opinions are always right. Many times, when my mom is talking to me, she’ll accuse me of not listening. That’s not true at all. I am listening, but I just keep my thoughts to myself. I don’t bother to share my opinions or disagree with her because she thinks she’s always right.”

Apparently, her mother feels she’s right about Nell’s emotions as well: “My mom will ask me how I feel, and when I tell her, she says, ‘No, you don’t.”

Allison and Tara provide another example of a communication shut-down.  In one counseling session, 14-year-old Allison opened up to her mom, Tara, saying, “I’ve always felt you liked [my brother] Mark more than me . . . .” Before Allison could even finish her sentence, Tara interrupted defensively, “That’s not true! I have always cared for you kids the same!”  The desire for any further discussion was effectively squashed.

Because Allison became quiet, Tara mistakenly believed that the problem was resolved. It wasn’t. That’s because the problem is rooted in the heart, not the head. Allison doesn’t need words to straighten out her thinking—the remedy must be aimed directly at the heart.

Allison may have her facts wrong—her mother may truly love her children the same—but her personal experience says otherwise, and that’s where Tara needs to go.

Here is the advice I gave Tara: Get control of that knee-jerk need to defend yourself. Instead, strive to understand why your daughter feels that way so you can tackle the problem at its roots. Be receptive to her perspective as she reveals why she feels the way she does. Comfort her and apologize for any pain you may have unintentionally caused.

Tara was game to give it another try. She warmly invited Allison to explain why she felt her mom was favoring her brother.

Allison tearfully responded: “Because you never get mad at him. You’re always yelling at me. I can’t do anything right! You think I’m a terrible kid.”

Again, Tara went on the defense.  “No I don’t!” she argued, giving examples to the contrary. The brief argument that followed ended with Allison’s silence once again. Tara didn’t win the argument. In fact, she lost. She forfeited communication with her daughter and reinforced Allison’s reluctance to share her thoughts and feelings.

Sixteen-year-old Justin’s parents complain that he never talks to them. The reason became obvious in a family session about Justin’s grades. Justin’s parents grilled him like police officers. Their interrogating, warning, shaming and lecturing tactics virtually guaranteed a shut-down. With his arms folded, Justin said nothing as he gazed at the floor. If Justin’s parents want productive dialogue with their son, their manner must invite that.

What makes teenagers comfortable enough to open up to their parents?  For the answer, we adults need only to look at what works for us. What entices us to open up and talk?  The answer is simple: We feel safe, and we feel convinced that the other person is truly interested in what we have to say.

We want to be heard, they want to be heard . . . no difference.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under General Interest, Parenting