When adolescents (everyone actually) express their feelings to adults, they don’t like to hear parrot-like responses of their exact words repeated back to them. “That’s what I just said!” is a typical response, with an underlying, “Are you deaf or just stupid?” Parents parrot back for several reasons:
- They heard somewhere that this was the thing to do so that the person felt properly ‘heard’
- They are buying time to process what they have just heard and collect their thoughts for the best response
- They are being careful not to appear overly critical or negative, to keep the conversation going, so parroting back is the safest approach
- They are really trying to understand what they have heard, so are repeating it back for clarity of understanding
Regardless of the motive, parroting back can serve to cause greater upset. Better to rephrase in a way that shows understanding and support, without judgment. “It’s so annoying when that happens. You must be annoyed and angry that she would say that.” Helping to get the feelings out, openly expressed, helps to deal with them in an appropriate way. Recognizing the depth of the feeling and working through them gives the adolescent a skill that they will be able to use for a lifetime.
In a very close relationship, some prefer not talking at all when they’re upset; their parents’ presence is comfort enough. A look that says you understand, a gesture that is soothing, a tradition (“Let’s break out some Ben and Jerry’s”) can be just what’s needed to settle bad feelings. And when the time is right, the child will tell you the whole story. Or not. The details aren’t important; the support of getting through the feelings is.
Sometimes in a highly emotional discussion when an intense feeling is expressed, the parent may respond with a cool and matter-of-fact, “Correct.” This response tends to create irritation in an already agitated state, because the teen doesn’t feel like he was really understood. The best response is to show that you are right there with him in the emotion. If she feels like you know what she’s going through right there in the moment, she can relax a bit and stop fighting.
But what’s not helpful is when parents respond with more intensity than the child feels. The parent is so outraged by what he has just heard and flies off the handle, protective urges fully engaged. “How dare that teacher treat you that way! I’m marching right down there tomorrow and straightening her out!” Or “You must be so offended that you were treated like that! It’s just terrible! I’m ready to cry for you – how awful!” “Really, it’s no big deal. Stop making a federal case about it.” [with the silent thought: no wonder I don’t tell them anything; they fly off the handle about every little thing.]
COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY: When your adolescent expresses his feelings to you (yay, he’s talking!), take your cues from him. If you blow things out of proportion, it’s needlessly upsetting and creates an intensity that isn’t needed. If you don’t show enough care in your response, she feels like you are discounting her very real feelings and you just don’t understand her – what help are you? Both are relationship damagers. The key is to really pay close attention, be there mentally (not just physically) when they need you, which takes time and focus, but the payoff is a closer relationship.