Parents, what does loneliness look like, sound like, and feel like to you? How does frustration show up for you? What about bliss; how do you experience this sensation?
Do you find these questions difficult to answer? Or perhaps they feel too complex to give a concise answer? Me too! And, unlike our teens, we have fully developed prefrontal cortices!
With these questions, I asked you to use your “upper” rational brain to think about the “lower” emotional brain. Many of us use our rational brain to tell ourselves that an emotion we’re experiencing is bad or embarrassing and must be hidden; we often use it to avoid emotion. Here, though, I’m encouraging you to integrate or unite these two powerful aspects of our brain by giving emotional space in your cognition.
I’m excited to share a story that illustrates how you can use this concept to support your tweens and teens, whose brains are still rapidly developing, particularly in the upper or prefrontal cortex region.
While working with a 12-year-old client recently, she said, “I don’t have real friends, and I don’t know how to make them.” I listened as she said these words. I held space for her, and while a part of me wanted to shout out, “You are amazing and incredible and loveable!” and work towards a plan of action to get her the support she desires, I stayed quiet and calm. When she paused, I said, “It sounds like you’re feeling sad about what happened, and a little frustrated. I’m so sorry this happened.” She responded with more details of the ways she was hurt.
At her next pause, I asked, “Is there anything else?” She added just a few more details, and finally, when I saw her take a big breath, observing her chest rising, I knew she had already started to calm down. I gave her an affirmation, “You are safe and loved here, and I hear you. This all sounds really tough.”
Then, I made an invitation. I asked, “Are you ready to explore the emotions from this situation a bit more?” She agreed.
The steps below walk you through the 6-Step Process I then facilitated with my client. These steps are tools for you to communicate with your tween or teen on the days they come home upset and venting, and even on the days when they respond with silence.
1. Ask for permission to dig deeper. If the answer is no, honor that by saying, “I’ll check back with you in an hour to see if you might be ready.” It’s as important to let your teen know that they can have space as it is to reassure them that you are interested, concerned, and available.
2. Invite your child to draw out OR journal the situation using as much detail as they’d like. Give both choices even if you know your teen’s preferences. (They need to– and love to–have a say in their lives!)
3. Give them time to write or draw. Rather than hovering or getting on your phone, I suggest drawing or writing alongside them. Select a situation from your day or an experience you’ve faced that relates to theirs. Stay present and show your child that you’re willing to do the same work your asking of them.
4. After several minutes, invite them to share. You might say, “Tell me what’s happening in your drawing.” As they retell the event, notice the range of different emotions that surface. With my client, for example, I saw her furrowed brow, which seemed to indicate frustration or anger. At another point, and in her drawing, I saw tears and sensed sadness. And in yet another instance, she expressed aloofness or fear, saying “I’m OK. It’s no big deal.”
5. Next, offer a handful of emotions that may be relevant to the experience. I shared the following list: anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness, and fear. You can even print a copy of an emotions word bank for reference. Encourage your child to pick 2 or 3 emotions that they’d like to explore further.
6. Have your child title the page with the name of the emotion. Then create a 3-column chart, such as this one, using the headings looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They may then fill out the chart using words, images, and symbols to express their experience with the selected emotion.
Through these activities, we can bring cognition to emotions. A benefit of this work is building a pathway between the “upper” and “lower” brain; this way, when the emotion comes up next, there may be more direct access to the thinking, rational brain as your child notices and names the experience they are having. Your child will develop self-awareness and emotional awareness, which will increase their ability to regulate and calm themselves, as well as become excellent advocates for themselves and their needs.
This process takes time, but rest assured! Every opportunity your teen has to know themselves and their emotions more fully is a step towards empowerment and intentional self-sufficiency.
If it starts to feel easier to go back to the status quo for your family and let this whole processing thing go, please know that you are not alone! And if that’s the case, I would love to be a partner to you and your child to begin new communication routines. Let’s connect!