When someone else is upset, it isn’t always easy to be sympathetic. This is especially true when it seems like they are upset for little or no reason, or they are overreacting. For parents, this can be a constant struggle. All children do this, though it usually settles down with time. Some people, though, struggle with strong emotions all their life. It can be especially difficult living with a high-emotion teenager.
The truth is, some people get upset easier than others, and have a hard time calming down. We call the ability to calm oneself down an emotion regulation skill. Some people, because of their biology, have a hard time with emotional regulation. (Though it can be learned- teaching these skills is a key component of DBT).
For the parent of a teen with poor emotion regulation skills, life can be difficult, and your relationship with your child can suffer. During times of high emotion, it is only natural to think, or to say:
“Get over it”
“You are overreacting”
“Act your age”
We call these responses invalidating. The problem? These responses are usually not effective. By effective, we mean helping you get what you want. When your teen is upset, the thing you probably want most from your interaction with them is for them to feel better and calm down. These types of responses tends to not calm people down, but instead lead to more negative emotion. Only now the negative emotion is about both the original issue and your response to it.
These responses are probably not effective even if they are true. Someone may be “overreacting,” in the sense that they are over estimating the significance of an event. Teens often overestimate the importance of events, because they lack the perspective of experience. For example, the end of a romantic relationship tends to be much more painful during adolescence, because of unrealistic expectations about the relationship.
When people are upset, they usually can’t be argued or berated into feeling better. Often, people cannot be convinced to feel better, even with a rational argument. Emotions often have to be felt, and take time to run their course.
Even more crucially, invalidating responses can result in confusion and greater negative emotion. Over years, these responses can be damaging. If children constantly receive the message that their emotions are “wrong,” their emotion regulation skills tend to suffer: they never become skilled at recognizing, labeling, or controlling their emotions.
So, if your teen is really upset, and you don’t agree with their reaction or beliefs driving the reaction, how do you respond?
Effective responses tend to begin with validation. Validation requires recognizing the emotions the other person is experiencing.
“You seem to be feeling X”
“I’m sorry you feel so sad/angry/upset”
“That is very sad when X happens”
It can be very difficult to be validating sometimes. It can be helpful to remember that validation does not require you to agree with the reasons behind emotion, or the intensity of the emotion, or the poor coping skills being used. It is simple a recognition of the reality of what the other person is feeling.
When dealing with someone who is highly emotional, practice working from how things are, rather than how you wish them to be. Maybe you don’t think someone should be upset, but if they are, that is what you have to work with. Here are some tips on how to be validating:
Give the person your full attention
Observe and reflect what the other person is feeling (“ You seem very upset”)
Demonstrate acceptance and understanding (“It can be very hard when x happens”)
Avoid being judgmental (“You’re overreacting”), insincere (saying things you don’t really mean),
Give these tips a try, and you may find it helps when dealing with your high-emotion teen, calming them down faster, and strengthening your relationship.