Communicating About Emotion Between Parent and Adolescent
At a time of growing apart, talking about feelings can feel connecting
Posted May 1, 2017
Starting with a few words about my view of emotion in general before discussing it within the context of the parent/adolescent relationship, this blog is longer than usual.
ONE VIEW OF EMOTION
It’s a wonder in many human relationships that something as constant and fundamental as emotion can be so little discussed, or done so with such apparent reluctance or difficulty. Consider this interchange.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m doing fine.”
“Not how you’re doing, but how you’re feeling.”
“And I told you, there’s nothing the matter with me!”
Why this guardedness and avoidance? In spoken communication, simply talking about feelings can be complicated, whether in the workplace or the home place.
So at a meeting on the job, for example, where there’s a lot of normal stress from daily organizational life, most of the talking is about what people are doing or thinking, but not about what people are actually feeling. In the protocol of occupational communication, exchanging information about actions and thoughts is the rule, but about feelings is the exception.
Of course, within the family, feelings are hugely important: they color experience, arouse thoughts, and even drive behavior, while the mutual sharing of feelings creates empathy and intimacy in close and loving relationships. Feelings can allow valuable understanding when shared and can cause significant misunderstanding when they are not. “Until you explained about your stony silence, I thought you were mad at me, not sad about something else!”
Just as our vision and our hearing and our sense of touch sensitize us to ourselves and our surroundings, our emotions are informative too. I think of them as agents of our Affective Awareness System that direct attention to something significant happening in our internal or external world of experience. And they can be quite specific. On the “good feeling” side we may welcome news they bring. For example: Hope can be about positive possibility, Love can be about attraction, Curiosity can be about interest, and Loyalty can be about dedication. On the “bad feeling” side we may be less welcoming of what we are told. For example: Fear can be about danger, Anger can be about violation, Frustration can be about blockage, and Grief can be about loss.
With very young children who are just acquiring spoken language, parents spend a lot of time teaching “the feeling words” so the child can learn to transition from acting out emotion to talking emotion out. Thus, when the early-verbalizing child strikes at or throws something down or storms off, the parent helps attach a word to the emotional experience. “Next time you are feeling like acting this way, tell me you are ‘angry’ and then we can talk about what we can do.” Having a working emotional vocabulary is an extremely important acquisition in childhood, as is practicing the use of this spoken language to manage feelings when they become intense. Coupled with this early childhood education in emotional literacy is learning to honor powerful feelings without letting them dictate immediate actions.
Feelings can be very good informants, but very bad advisors. Because child emotions can urge impulsive action (grabbing from someone when feeling envious or striking out in retaliation when angry), it can be tempting to let strong feelings do our thinking for us about what to do. However, it is usually better to delay instead to consult our judgment first. Thus the parent may say: “I know what feels “right” to you in the moment, but next time try taking a little time to think before you act, and ask yourself what seems wise?” The same goes for the temper-prone adult as for the outraged child.
Sometimes impulsive people are driven to “think” with their feelings: “I just popped off because I was upset!” And sometimes insensitive people are those with limited emotional access, with an affective awareness system that is not well developed: “I don’t always know what I’m feeling.”
When people register an emotion, not only does the feeling direct their attention to some important aspect of their life experience, but it also mobilizes energy to make a variety of choices. For example, there is the Reflective choice: to simply ponder and acknowledge what is going on. There is the Expressive choice: to say something about what is going on. There is the Protective choice: to stop what is going on. There is the Corrective choice: to change what is going on.
Emotions are too important to avoid or ignore, and part of the parent’s job is to educate their child and adolescent how to use them well, teaching by adult example, interaction, and instruction. That said, in counseling with parents and couples, it often seems that the female is more comfortable and practiced talking about feelings than the male who is more at ease conversing about thoughts or actions. So the woman complains: “You’re so unfeeling!” And the man complains: “You’re so emotional!” Maybe the caring sensitive female ethic and strong silent male ethic have contributed to this difference. In such cases it seems like revealing emotion can be treated as womanly for the woman but unmanly for the man. To the degree they can, it’s usually best for parents to simply normalize talking about emotions so the adolescent can learn to do the same.
ADOLESCENCE AND EMOTION
In families, the closely attached little girl of boy who was so emotionally forthright can become less emotionally disclosing when the young person starts detaching from childhood and parents into adolescence. Why? “My feelings are nobody’s business!” “I don’t like showing my sensitive side.” “I want my emotional privacy.” “I like to keep my feelings to myself.” In service of creating more room for growing up, young people can become less disclosing and more protective of their emotions.
At the same time, they can also become more emotionally sensitive and intense, not only because of the hormonal influence of puberty, but also because of the developmental changes, like experimentation and opposition, that are now driving the young person’s redefinition toward more individuality and independence. Change is physically and socially and emotionally upsetting and resetting the adolescent’s terms of operation.
For the parents it is also a more emotional time as there is growing social distance with the teenager, less complete communication, and increased conflict with the young person over freedom of expression and action. Feeling less in charge than with a child, but equally responsible, parents experience more worry as they struggle to decide when and where to continue holding on and when and where to start letting go.
Through all the changes, it’s easy to forget the importance of preserving emotional connectedness. To support openness of talking about emotions, there are a few things parents can do. To begin, they can routinely model the sharing of emotions from their own life. “Let me tell you about a good feeling and hard feeling time at my work today.” They can be appreciative when the young person shares strong feelings – hurt or happy – with them. “Thank you for letting us know about the hard time you are having with your friend; is there any way we can help?” They can forsake any critical responses of their adolescent, because criticism undercuts emotional safety. “I don’t tell my parents how I’m feeling because that just makes me easier to put down.” They can always place concern before correction. “Before we talk about what you did; we first need to know if you are feeling okay.”
Then there is a complicated distinction parents need to be able to make in their own verbal expression of emotion: the distinction between communicating about emotion and communicating emotionally.
Communicating about emotion, parents are striving for emotional intimacy by disclosing their feelings in hopes of being better understood: “I felt disappointed (hurt/angry) that you didn’t like my idea. Communicating emotionally, parents may be using the expression of strong feelings to get their way: “I expressed strong disappointment (hurt/anger) so you would change your mind. Between parent and teenager, the verbal expression of emotion is too important to be put to such manipulative use.
Of course, adolescence changes the child, and when those changes are hard to understand, accept, and keep up with, parents and adolescent can find themselves feeling estranged by the host of emerging differences. For example, Characteristics change, like from the onset of sexual maturity. Values change, like from the countercultural influence of peers. Habits change, like from the growth of active and passive resistance to parental authority. Wants change, like from the young person’s increasing push for personal freedom. Sometimes the increased human diversity between them can feel alienating. “We have so many differences and so little in common anymore!”
However, one aspect of adolescence doesn’t change from childhood is the young person’s basic repertoire of Emotions that is the same as the adults. Thus, being able to talk about feelings is one powerful ways to stay connected as other changeable factors grow them apart. “Since both of us feel frustrated and unappreciated in the relationship right now, maybe we can talk about that!”
Despite the increasing diversity of characteristics, values, habits, and wants growing them apart, they remain emotionally alike. Through expressing empathy a parent can affirm this basic similarity: “I know how you are feeling because I’ve felt that way myself.” Thus when a parent celebrates the happy adolescent for good times and successes great and small, and when the parent comforts the sad adolescent for hard times and hurts great and small, the adult emotionally responds on a human level that deeply connects them both.
This makes me mindful of what poet Muriel Rukeyser had to say about the separation and diversity between “Islands:”
“Oh for God’s sake
They are connected
Sometimes, when parent and adolescent are feeling most separated and estranged by the growing differences between them, sharing emotional experience of mutual sadness, enjoyment, caring, or laughter, can restore the sense of commonality they miss. Now they feel “connected underneath.”
Next week’s entry: Adolescents, Parents, and the Power of Self-Esteem