Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Emotion Regulation

A Pause May Save Your Relationship

There is something you can do before damaging a connection.

Key points

  • Collecting grievances can destroy relationships.
  • Every action does not require a reaction.
  • Stop, calm down, and pause before expressing strong feelings, or deciding to let them go.

Dear Dr. G.,

I am a 42-year-old woman living in New York City with my 16-year-old daughter. She and I get along well most of the time but we do have some problems which I will describe and ask you about in a little while. First, I would like to describe a problem that my daughter and I both seem to have with our friendships. Maybe I taught my daughter to act like this. I'm just not sure and I need to help her and myself. We both seem to have trouble managing our emotions especially when we are frustrated. Last week, my daughter got upset with her friend over something minor and texted her friend a list of things that she doesn't like about her. As you can imagine, my daughter's friend is very upset and is avoiding her in school. My daughter is so distressed about this and doesn't know what to do. She was in a similar situation a few months ago. She thought that a friend was ignoring her and responded by telling the friend that she is both inconsiderate and thoughtless. She has lost this girl as a friend. I know this girl and her family very well and they are really kind people. We have lived in the same building as them for years and they have been both good neighbors and friends. I have been thinking a lot about my daughter's history with her friends and I believe that her social problems started during her adolescence. I understand that the teen years are difficult but not every teen acts as intensely as my daughter.

Now, I would like to tell you about myself. I have never had trouble making friends but I have trouble keeping them. I notice that I tend to save up what friends do that I don't like and then when I am upset with them about something minor (like them not texting me back quickly) I tell them about all of the things that make me mad. I can get mean. I hate that I do that but I do. My mother was labeled with borderline personality disorder and I wonder if this has affected me. My mother is either loving or hating people. She has a list of people who are currently in favor and a list of people who are out of favor because they have wronged her. As you can imagine, it was emotionally exhausting growing up with such a mother and it continues to be difficult to be around her.

Regarding my relationship with my own daughter, we mostly get along but when we get irritated with each other, we say things that sting. Let me give you some examples: My daughter was frustrated that I didn't take her to get a new phone immediately. I took her later that afternoon. As a result, she told me that I am self-centered and selfish. This was hurtful and I don't believe that it is true. Similarly, when my daughter didn't talk to me as soon as she got home from school this week, I told her that she never speaks to me and she should be more like her friends. This, too, was hurtful and not true.

Dr. G., my daughter and I are just too intense and there is way too much emotionality swirling around in our lives. We need help. I'm just not sure what to do here. There is a pattern of behavior going on here that is costing us our friendships and is damaging our relationship. Please help.

A Scared Mother

Dear Mother,

Thank you for writing to me. I admire you for both identifying a very real problem and for wanting to address it. I believe that there is a lot going on here and that I can help you by identifying the many factors associated with the interpersonal problems that you describe. I am so sorry that you grew up with a mother with borderline personality disorder. I am sure that this was hard for your mother, you, the rest of the family, and your mother's friends. Sadly, your mother has likely been a role model for you to react intensely in situations which don't require such intensity. Relationships do better when we are thoughtful before reacting. I believe that you have unwittingly been a role model for your daughter. As you change your behavior, it is likely that your daughter will take note and modify her behavior.

My concern is that you and your daughter see rejection where it doesn't necessarily exist. It also seems like you both collect grievances—saving up a list of what people have done wrong and then unloading on them. My suggestion is that you not make assumptions about the motives of others and refrain from making mental lists of wrongdoing. After you feel slighted, take a pause and think about what occurred before reacting with volatility or at all. The pause you take will give you time to calm down and think about what happened. This time allows you to get some emotional distance from the situation and think about what occurred and whether or not it requires a response. Friends appreciate it if you let some things go. No one is perfect. Keep in mind that you and your daughter may not always be reading the intentions and emotions of others accurately. In these situations, you may benefit from speaking gently to friends before you react. Ask about their feelings rather than assuming. This may save the relationship. Drama is a relationship destroyer. You and your daughter, I am sure, are painfully aware of this.

Regarding your relationship with your daughter, I suggest that you begin to have conversations with her about the behavior that is problematic. You are correct that adolescents have difficulty with emotional control but that is not all that is going on here. Explain to your daughter that life will be easier for her if she stops and resets before unloading on friends. Tell her that you and she will begin by practicing that with each other. Having rapid reactions almost always leads to problems, Also, discuss the importance of apologizing for volatility. If you and your daughter continue to have difficulty with relationships, I suggest that you consider working with a skilled therapist on issues of emotional regulation, anger, frustration, and impulsivity.

I wish you good luck and easier connections.

Dr. G.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Barbara Greenberg Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today