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Helping a child through distress

Parents suffer when their children suffer. You want to know how to help your distressed child or teenager. But how? And how not?

Recently, I asked amongst my Facebook friends who would like an invitation*** to my e-launch for Be Resilient and one friend said, “YES! Traumatic incident at my daughter’s school yesterday has really shaken her (rightly so) could do with some more resilience-building info!!”

(***There’s an invitation for you at the bottom of this page!***)

She has given me permission to blog about this but I asked for no other information so I know literally nothing about the incident. There are so many possibilities. I don’t even know if it was personal to the child or something that she witnessed along with others. I don’t know if it was physical or emotional and I don’t know where on the scale of horrible to really horrible it was. I don’t know how old the child was but I believe either primary school or at most very early secondary. But there’s a lot I can say without knowing any of those things.

Acceptance

The key phrase that stood out for me was “rightly so”. My friend – let’s call her Sam because I’d quite like to be called Sam myself – believes that her daughter was right to be shaken.

Sam is in that case right and this is the right response. It is the beginning of helping her child. Having one’s emotional and physical/visceral response acknowledged, accepted and therefore validated is the first and essential step towards being able to process it appropriately and move forward to resilience. The wrong and unhelpful – even damaging – response would be “Don’t be silly – it’s a minor thing – just put it behind you – here, have some cake to make you feel better.” I am not suggesting people would typically say “Don’t be silly” but we imply it by diminishing or dismissing the emotional power of a natural response to distress. A child who hears “my response is inappropriate” wonders in that case why they had that response. The child who doesn’t hear validation of their feelings wonders what is wrong with their feelings. And they won’t find an answer inside themselves.

Acceptance means that, even if the incident seems minor to you (which it didn’t in Sam’s case) it does not help your child for you to say (or show) that you think it’s minor. There are more subtle ways of reducing the impact on your child and helping them put the incident in a more manageable and healthy context.

In counselling, we must come to a situation with the following core conditions:

  1. Genuineness – a genuine desire to be there and to help, even though “help” may not mean “fix” – I’ll come to that
  2. Acceptance – that what the person says they feel/think/believe is what they feel/think/believe – it is their reality and for this moment that is all that matters. What comes next is different and that’s what counselling seeks to help the person find.
  3. Understanding – a real understanding of the mechanisms of human emotion and behaviour, reasons why we do/feel/think/believe what we do. What makes person A react like this and person B like that?

Understanding

Short of doing a crash course in human psychology or reading ALL my books – just a thought – how can you come to the necessary understanding in time to respond helpfully to a child in distress? Here are a few pointers:

1. Emotional response is instant, powerful, valuable and not fixed

  • Instant: always happens before the rational prefrontal cortex gets a look in
  • Powerful: we are driven first and foremost by our emotional response and we will always have to work hard to bring our pfc into the situation – and adults will/should typically find that easier than young people because our pfc is fully developed (but still often not in full control)
  • Valuable: because without emotion we are robots and robots don’t make better decisions anyway
  • Not fixed: this is crucial because it reminds us (and we need to remind young people) that how you feel now will change – not might change but will

2. The prefrontal cortex is what we use to push things into appropriate context.

Adults, with fully developed pfcs, find that hard enough (and often we fail) but children and teens will find it harder.

3. Life experience teaches us things

I guess this is obvious but it’s worth remembering that young people usually have less life experience than adults. So, we learn (slowly and imperfectly!) things like “How I feel now is not how I’ll feel later” or “I’ve done this before – I can do it again.”

4. Learned helplessness comes from too much OR too little support

A person can learn, through experience, the following two negative things:

  • “I have no power – because when I’ve tried I’ve failed” – this happens when a young person gets too little support or has poor role models
  • “I have no power – because my adults always do it for me” – this happens when the adults give too much support, fixing or avoiding the problems. And the unsaid but heard message is “I am not trusted to be resilient – and adults are right so I must not be capable of resilience.”

Fixing is not the goal

For so many people, including me, our instinct as caring humans is to try to fix. Sometimes we can indeed help fix, with practical advice and with the right words. But the starting point is to think first whether this is something that should or can be fixed. And to know that often it can’t be. A person can be fixed but the situation often can’t be. But the person needs to become fixed, not be fixed by another.

You can’t fix an accident, or illness, or death. You can’t fix grief, or loss, or (usually) fear, unless the fear is genuinely unfounded and mistaken. You can’t fix an anxious personality, sensitivity, emotional intensity. Often you can’t fix friendships. You can’t fix how other people treat you or your child. You can’t fix dyslexia or ASD or a whole load of other things that bring challenges to life. You can’t fix life.

You can’t fix the fact that good humans get upset about bad things. Or that bad things happen to good humans. Or that we don’t always get what we want – thank goodness because then what would there be left to aim and hope for?

You can’t fix storms but you can fix the boat that sails through them. Resilience is about building a strong boat.

What can you do, then?

  1. You first acknowledge, as Sam has done, that what happened happened. That it was horrible (and find the right words for the level of horrible.) You validate by reflecting back what the person has said so they hear you say how they feel, accurately.

In counselling practice this often feels contrived:

Client: “I feel upset and angry that this happened. It makes me feel that X doesn’t care about me at all. Did they even listen to me?”

Counsellor: “I sense that you feel upset and angry about this and that you feel that X doesn’t care about you at all. You feel unheard by X.”

Of course, you can use slightly different words as long as you are properly hearing what they said, not what you think they would have said if they’d been you.

2. Next you show that you believe they can recover from this. That it will change but not damage them. You trust their resilience but you will not leave them on their own. When they recover, it will be their success with you as their cheer-leader.

3. Then you could think about whether there are any practical ideas you could suggest – and help with if necessary. This might involve talking to a relevant person. So, this could be an element of “fixing” – but they will lead on it. Don’t do it for them. Be safety net, not helicopter.

4. You teach and remind things such as:

  • “Your feelings about this will change. One day you will look back and think/have forgotten/be proud of how you coped.”
  • “Lots of things will happen in your life – some will be good and others will be bad. You can learn how to put the bad things into a small space in your head and you can learn from them and become stronger each time.”

5. When appropriate (and if this is a very bad thing, then this might not be immediately) distracting and pleasurable activities will help, to remind the person that there are good things in life. These are practical reminders. They work better than words unless the words are the person’s own words.

More practical tips:

Remember: you can’t fix storms but you can fix the boat that sails through them. That’s what all my books try to teach.


INVITATION FOR YOU

I have free spaces at the e-launch of Be Resilient on July 1st at 6.30pm. If you’re interested, just email me at n@nicolamorgan.co.uk. It will be totally relaxed (I won’t but it will) and you will not have to do or say anything – no annoyingly extrovert-biased “ice-breaker” exercises that I hate so much!

Please come – and you can ask me questions, if you like!

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