One of the challenges many of us face is allowing other people to have their own experiences. When the people we care about are sad, angry, or anxious, we often try to get them to feel differently. We may try to make them laugh, tell them everything is going to be okay, or please them in some way. Ultimately, we are trying to stop other people from having their own experiences. Parents, in particular, struggle with this as their child enters adolescence and begins to develop his/her own sense of self.
For example, some event occurs in the adolescent’s life that causes him/her to become sullen, non-communicative, and lax with schoolwork. Mom or dad attempts to please the adolescent by taking him/her shopping, giving him/her money to see a movie, etc. After this fails to change the adolescent’s mood, mom or dad gets frustrated and expresses to the adolescent, ‘snap out of it’, ‘you have so many other good things going on in your life’, etc. This can trigger further feelings of helplessness and failure as a parent.
At this point, it may be helpful and/or necessary for the parent to take a time-out and consider what he/she is feeling in the situation. Is the parent reminded of their own adolescent struggles from the past? Does the parent feel nervous that the adolescent may harm him/herself or never feel good/ hopeful again? When the parent is able to identify the source of his/her own feelings, it then becomes easier to allow the adolescent to ‘own’ their feelings.
In order for human beings to grow emotionally, whatever the age, they need to experience all of their feelings- learning to identify them, express them appropriately, and let them go. If the feelings are blocked in some way by another person, these tasks are not achieved and growth is limited.
So, what does the parent do in the situation? The importance of just being present is often overlooked. Serving as a witness to another person’s emotional pain is in itself therapeutic. The parent can also verbalize to the adolescent, ‘ I am here to listen if you feel like talking’ or ask the adolescent, ‘Is there anything you need me to do or say while you are going through this?’ Sometimes, an adolescent is open to sharing his/her feelings, but is not able to verbalize them directly to the parent. The parent can then suggest that the adolescent write down what is happening for them in a letter. This can be beneficial as it allows the adolescent to gather his/her thoughts and to process the feelings through the act of writing them down. It may not even be necessary for the parent to offer a response to the letter. The act of writing and putting the thoughts/feelings ‘somewhere’ may in itself provide the help that is needed.
The overall approach is to offer support, but also to allow the adolescent to take responsibility for working through his/her feelings. Essentially- letting the adolescent have his/her own experience.