Dear Mom and Dad,
I am writing this to tell you a little about how I am feeling and let you know that I am trying to understand how you are feeling too. There are some things I would like to ask of you. One, I would like it if you could try to see things through my eyes. I have been trying to do that with you and I think you would see me differently if you did that too. Two, I would like it if everything was not all my fault. I know that I need to take responsibility for some things, but not 100% of things. Three, it really hurts when you say I am being a certain way and I don’t think fits me. Words like rude, dramatic, or self-centered make me feel bad. You may not always use those words, but the message is clear. Four, sometimes I don’t get enough time to cool down when I am upset or I just don’t feel like talking about it right now. I want to respect you, but I want you to respect me too. When these things don’t work, I feel down inside and it is hard for me to set myself up for success. I am only saying all this to tell you how I am feeling and try to find a way to work things out easier. Please write me back.
Wow! That is a lot for a 14-year old to say, and it shows that while parents can get stuck thinking that “kids are just kids”, teens are often capable of thinking and expressing themselves beyond what we believe is possible. While you may not have received a letter like this one, your teen has probably shared his/her thoughts and feelings in one way or another. These can come out in a variety of ways ranging from calm discussions or letters like this one to angry yelling or tearful breakdowns. Her letter is an expression of her emotional intelligence, or her ability to:
- Know her own feelings,
- Use her feelings to make decisions,
- Manage distress and control impulses,
- Take actions that move her toward her goals,
- Show empathy – know how others are feeling, and
- Manage emotions in her relationships.
The trap for parents is that they can find themselves analyzing, reacting, or responding point-by-point to what is shared. But actually, their sharing is a perfect opportunity to GET IN THEIR WORLD! What teens really wants is for their parents to “get them”… to understand who they are and what they are going through.
Using the letter above, you can begin to “get her” by trying to understand what is at the source of her words. What is it that she really wants you to know about her? You may see that she wants to be:
- Understood in the context of her world – the teenage world,
- Seen as responsible,
- Seen as a part of, but not the sole source of the problem or argument,
- Thought highly of ,
- Respected, and
- Given space to calm down.
Given that, how might you respond to her? Being in her world would involve putting aside your own thoughts and emotions and focusing on what she wants you to understand about her. For example, you could let her know that you think she is responsible. You could even give examples of her being responsible.
The next time you have an opportunity to be get in your teens world, try the following techniques:
- Focus on fostering openness and trust in your relationship. Generally, this means creating a safe environment for sharing by listening and showing that you believe your teens thoughts and feelings are valid and important.
- Stay focused on what your teen shares. Be careful not to react to triggers of your own thoughts and feelings. You will have an opportunity to share what is important to you later.
- Address what is at the source of your teens thoughts or feelings and avoid focusing on picky details. In the example above, you can hear that she wants to be understood. Try saying something like, “It sounds like you feel really misunderstood and I want to understand you”
- Repeat what is said, so that your teen has the experience of being heard. For example, “So, what I hear you telling me is…..” (put it in your own words but restate what was said).
- Dig a little deeper by asking your teen if you missed anything, or if he/she would like to tell you more. Phrases like, “Did I get that right?”, “Have I missed anything? or “Do you want to tell me more about that?” can help you dig a little deeper.
- Point out the outcome you think your teen wants. I hear you saying that you would like to be heard. You would like it if I listened to you without interrupting.”
- Create with your teen. Make some agreements. For example, you could agree to be AWESOME listeners, or to allow space before talking about heated issues.
Once teens feel gotten, they are much more open to listening to you. It is at this point that you can share what is going on for you and give your teen an opportunity to practice getting someone else. It is through these kind of interactions that emotional intelligence is built and fostered!
- The Origins of Emotional Intelligence: The Embryology of Emotions and The Roots of Human Motivation (psychologytoday.com)