“But No One Understands ME!”: Communication and Connection with a Teen

A mother and daughter have been working on communication skills for the past few weeks. We’d worked through “I statements” (don’t talk about the other person, talk about yourself) which eliminated much of the assumptions, blaming and escalation. Now we’re working on feelings. The daughter is sobbing while the mother sits stiffly on the other end of the couch. I gently ask the mother what’s going on and she shares that she thinks communication should occur after her daughter is done “being emotional.” Turns out emotional expression is very threatening for the mother so she goes into a freeze response (fight, flight, freeze or sleep are the options when a person perceives a threat).

Interestingly as the mother freezes the daughter ends up expressing both her emotions and her mother’s. Some people learn how to do this without even noticing; they will pick up on unexpressed emotions around them and express them. I double check this in a couple of ways. First I ask the daughter to use words to describer her feelings (sad, upset), then I ask her to rate them on a scale of 0 (least) to 10 (most). She places her feelings at about a 4, which for her does not add up to crying so hard. Second I ask the mother to share some feeling words of her own with her daughter (sad, mad). As the daughter hears her mother her tears slow down and her sobs dissipate. I work with them to each see that the other person can handle their own feelings. Often there’s an unspoken belief in people that feelings have an inherent power to harm; they will spend their whole life trying to avoid feelings. Ironically the only way to disarm feelings it to feel them in the moment and move on.

Next session I will work with the daughter on becoming aware of when she picks up and expresses feelings that aren’t her own, but for today I’m thrilled the mother and daughter (now cuddling in the middle of the couch) are making progress. Take time this week to work on communication with someone you love.