Few phrases will cause such an immediate, intense, almost visceral reaction from me as, “You’re so strong!” It’s a phrase that I have heard countless times over the last few years. On the surface, it sounds like a compliment that I possess the ability to hold and manage more than you would expect, and I work to receive this message as the one the sender is trying to convey. What it feels like the person is saying is that they are unable to deal with my sadness, grief, frustration, anger, or whatever emotion, and they need me to be strong because the emotions make them uncomfortable. I’m left feeling alone and dismissed.
In the early days of grief, the feelings of being overwhelmed with the “business” of death can feel paralyzing. Often, there are seemingly endless tasks that need to be completed within a very short amount of time. Sadly, most of these tasks require the next of kin, so that leaves the people that are in the midst of intense shock, grief, disbelief, anger, frustration, or whatever mishmash of emotions to navigate yet another emotional load; it can feel like too much.
The feeling of being alone is scary. Navigating really strong emotions without support and guidance is treacherous, we might make decisions or take actions that are counter to our actual needs because of the disorientation that strong emotions can evoke. So what can we do, as the person in the midst of a seemingly never ending emotional storm and as the person watching someone we care about struggle to fight the onslaught of emotional waves? Be there, be present, and be willing to listen. You can’t take away their pain for them, you can be that safe place where they don’t have to pretend to be “ok” or “fine”.
Providing people with the chance to not be strong, to be authentic and genuine with the feelings they are experiencing, no matter what those may be, can be just the thing that we all need to do truly develop that strength. If you are struggling finding that internal strength to deal with loss or grief, or just need that safe place to discover your strength consider reaching out to a therapist. You are strong! We can help you think it, feel it, and believe it!
LGBTQIA youth face unique mental health challenges as they struggle to reconcile their faith, sexual identity, or gender identity. If you are a parent of an LGBTQIA youth moving towards accepting your child’s identity, I would like to share a few thoughts. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of familial support to LGBTQIA youth. Then, I will share simple, practical actions to support your child through this moment.
LGBTQIA youth who question their identity hide who they truly are for fear of being rejected by their families. LGBTQIA youth worry about hurting their parents and family members who believe that being gay is immoral and sinful. But when LGBTQIA youth hide their identities, they pay a high cost. It undermines their self-esteem and self-worth. New research shows that families and caregivers significantly influence their LGBTQIA youth’s risk and well-being. The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition reports that LGBTQIA teens who experience family rejection are eight times more likely to die by suicide than LGBTQIA teens accepted by family. Data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows that LGBTQIA teens who are rejected by their families are six times more likely to have high levels of depression, three times more likely to use illegal drugs, and three times more likely to be at increased risk for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Conversely, studies show that LGBTQIA youth who are accepted by their families experience overall physical and emotional health. It also helps them to develop higher self-esteem and value their inherent sense of worthiness. Furthermore, LGBTQIA youth accepted by their families are less likely to be depressed, use illegal drugs, or attempt suicide. Family acceptance also helps LGBTQIA youth create healthy beliefs about their life outcome. They believe that they will be happy, productive, and have a good life with family support. If you are motivated to support your child through this acceptance journey, but unsure what to do, you are not alone.
Finally, parents, you may be struggling with your emotions, and that’s ok and normal. However, it is critical to emphasize that parents’ or caregivers’ actions and words have a powerful impact on their children’s well-being. If you’d like to foster a more supportive environment for a LGBTQIA child or teen, here are a few things you can do.
Show love and affection. LGBTQIA youth worry about being loved by their parents or caregivers. The question that they may be asking themselves is, “Am I loved? Am I lovable?” Don’t hesitate to tell your child, “I love you.” Also, show your child displays of physical affection. These actions will promote a secure attachment between you and your child.
Reach out and listen Your child may interpret long periods of silence as a sign of anger. It will feel uncomfortable to talk about your teens’ sexual orientation or sexual identity but reach out to talk to them about their experiences. Listen to what they have to say and respond with empathy.
Happy future Parents, accepting your LGBTQIA youth allow them to envision a happy future as an LGBTQIA adult. A positive narrative about the future is essential to counteract isolation, hopelessness, risky behaviors, and suicide ideation.
Stand up for your child. Remember, as a parent, your words are powerful. Through your journey and your child’s journey, you may hear some negative comments from families and friends. When you hear these negative comments, it is an opportunity to practice courage and let others know that you will not accept insults, teasing, or discrimination against your child. Insist that family members and friends treat your child with respect or rethink the very definition of family and friends.
When you know better, do better. As human beings, we are always evolving and growing. As parents, we also make mistakes. Do not try to be perfect but try to be human. American poet Dr. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Parents, your LGBTQIA child needs your love. They are afraid and worried that you might never love them. They need a secure attachment bond to become physically and emotionally healthy adults.
References: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, June 21). LGBT Youth. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm.
Sanders, R., & Fields, E. L. Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Youth. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/tips-for-parents-of- lgbtq-youth.
An empath is often described as one who identifies with
another person’s emotions as if they were their own. This personality trait
goes beyond the usual definitions of relating to others. For example, being sympathetic is merely understanding
another’s experience. Empathy moves
beyond this definition, where somebody feels for or with another person. Sometimes highly sensitive beings perceive
what others are feeling so intensely their emotions are being pulled about with
little understanding why. This
experience can be challenging for some because their life can turn upside down
when family members or close friends experience the agitating cycles of life.
Despite this challenge, this form of empathy is often
thought of as a gift. I agree with this
perspective. Those who relate
emotionally to the experiences of others in this fashion often assist in the
healing experiences for others because they validate others feelings in
meaningful ways. Sometimes those who are
empathic bridge communication gaps where language has no nourishment.
Recently neuroscientists have discovered the human brain
contains specific brain circuit structures called mirror neurons. These neurons primarily respond by
interpreting the emotional state of others, then translating these experiences
into mirrored responses. This research
provides scientific answers to how this process occurs. Furthermore, the latest research describes
how human beings experience and interact in their environment and how we are
wired to connect.
If you’re very empathic and highly sensitive, what can you do to create emotional stability? I recommend taking a moment in the morning to establish an emotional baseline. As you feel a shift during the day, ask yourself, “is this mine?”. It may also be helpful instead of thinking “why” are you feeling this way, ask yourself “who” may be feeling this that you are picking up on. This isn’t to say all emotions belong to others. When it is your emotions, it’s possible there is somebody in your social-field who is picking up on you whom you can connect with. This reality of the human experience presents an ideal opportunity to become vulnerable and realize that you’re not alone. After all, we are biologically wired to understand how others feel and experience the world together.
Life seems to be getting busier and busier from soccer practice to choir rehearsals, school projects, and bedtime stories. I think we sometimes forget how intense life can be for a teenager or even for your three-year old learner. As an adult, we often get stuck in a mindset where we believe our adult problems are real and our teens problems are miniscule in comparison. Sometimes we forget how difficult life can be in high school. Maintaining friendships seem more difficult these days, with all the technology and social media barriers. Your little ones experience these difficulties as well. This could be with making friends at daycare and when family members are too busy to play or acknowledge their presence. When your child is experiencing all these stressors, they may come across as having a bad attitude, disrespectful, over-sensitive, or selfish. In reality, our kids are really just trying to figure out how to navigate life and may lack skills or verbiage to describe their stress and pain.
At the same time my daughter was experiencing her newfound emotions as a teen, I had the joy of also raising a three-year old who I deemed was like a threenager.
Threenager:A three-year-old child who has just as big of an attitude and overwhelming emotions as a teenager but with even less words or skills to regulate themselves.
I felt a little overwhelmed at times with all of their emotions as well as my own. Here are some tips and tricks I used to not only survive this time but also help my children thrive during these hard times.
Do not minimize your children’s emotional experience. Even if their problem seems small or easily solvable to you. They are having a hard time.
Instead, listen to their story, validate their feelings and offer your unconditional love and support.
Avoid Blame. There are times when your child is experiencing a natural consequence such as losing a friend because they wouldn’t share or added to a rumor about them.
What they really need is empathy and support. “It’s hard when you lose a friend.” Or “you seem to have had a bad day.”
They don’t need you to fix it. It may seem easier as a parent with life skills to solve problems for our kids but there is a bigger reward when they learn to solve the problem on their own.
You can sit with them and help them come up with their own solutions, “how do you think you can fix this?” or “what would you like to be different?” Also never underestimate the power of sitting and problem solving with your child over a glass of chocolate milk. It does wonders in my home.
Respect their boundaries. If your child is having a hard day and they do not want to talk about it or refuse a hug, do not personalize it, allow them time to work on the problem on their own.
Be there for them when they are ready for a hug or to talk. You can offer reassurance by telling them “I can see you want some space right now, I am here if you need me.”
These simple reframes as a parent have gone a long way to create a safe and equal relationship with my kids. It has eased some stress on my end and helped my children to gain emotional intelligence and gain life skills that are invaluable into adulthood.
If you would like to schedule a family session or session for your child, please call us at Wasatch Family Therapy at 801-944-4555
Have you ever had a conversation where you just needed to vent? You just needed to get out all the pent-up frustration, anger, disappointment (whatever emotion that you were feeling at the time out), and the person that you were talking to immediately started telling you how to “fix” the problem? How were you feeling in that moment? Heard? Validated? Or the opposite?
Recently, my 17-year-old came in grumbling and lamenting about the struggles of high school existence. I listened for a bit, commiserated on how terrible small-town living is (sarcasm), and offered really “helpful” suggestions. Cue the eye-roll! Yep, I fell into the “fix-it” pattern; it’s ingrained. We are a society of “fixers.” We want to listen to an issue, come up with a few reasonable alternatives and fix the issue. But what happens if there isn’t a solution? Or, really a problem to be fixed?
The “fix it” trap is a very common style of miscommunication within couples and families. Wait…miscommunication? They’re talking about an issue and the other person is trying to help them with it, how is that miscommunication? The miscommunication happens when the intent of the speaker and the intent of the listener don’t match up. You might be asking yourself, “How am I supposed to know what my spouse/child/friend wants or needs out of a conversation? I’m not a mind reader!” My response is simple, yet really difficult for many of us because it’s something completely different from our typical pattern…ask. You read that right, just ask the person what they want or need from the conversation.
During the exchange with my child, after seeing the eye-roll and hearing the frustrated huffing and puffing, I knew that I had not given them what they needed from me. However, I didn’t want to make an incorrect assumption, again, so I simply apologized and asked, “I’m sorry, how can I help you right now? Is this something you need to talk about or something that you need help figuring out?” Now, I know that people are going to read this and say to themselves, “I try asking my child/spouse/ friend what they need and they just get mad!” Yep! The pattern is ingrained in the other direction as well. Sometimes the speaker may not even realize that they aren’t seeking a solution, but an opportunity to talk. What are you supposed to do then? Listen.
Take the time to really listen to what the person is saying, validating his/ her experience (even if you don’t agree), ask some questions to clarify to make sure that you are truly understanding, and empathize with what’s happening. Giving the person your undivided attention will give you (and the other person) the opportunity the truly ascertain what’s needed from the conversation. Go talk!
Recently, I was interviewed by “Good Things Utah” as to what is the secret to a happier, healthier marriage. And really, who doesn’t want this kind of marriage? One in which both partners feel connected, valued, and loved. From my 20+ years of experience as a clinical counselor, I’ve found that fostering the skill of empathy can really make all the difference for couples.
What is empathy exactly? Feeling bad for someone who’s struggling? Relating to someone else because you’ve gone through something similar? I like the research of Theresa Wiseman, who helps us understand empathy by breaking it down into these 4 parts:
Are the children in your life (whether in your family or your professional world) seeming to constantly misbehave? Do you know adults who seem to have missed some important steps in growing up? Maybe that adult is you. Have you heard of the ACE studies? ACE is an acronym that stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences and is the title of a growing body of research that is shedding new light on how childhood trauma impact a person’s social, psychological, intellectual, physical, and spiritual well-being.
According to John Gottman, in every interaction in our significant relationships, there is an opportunity to attune or turn away. We have many experiences where we notice our partner, and we make a choice: “Do I ATTUNE myself to what is going on,” or, “do I turn away?” Pay attention to what happens when you turn away. What are your thoughts? What happens to the other person? What does your body feel like? What do you choose instead?
A-T-T-U-N-E is an acronym for just how to turn toward our partners in a supportive and empathetic way. Our job with each other is to create emotional safety, and it is through small moments, like attuning, that create stability and ongoing romance. When we feel acknowledged, we feel secure and safe.
T- Turn Toward
Here are some fun ways to practice attuning opportunities:
Go for a walk with a spouse or child.
Plan a picnic.
Cook dinner together.
Call each other during the workday.
Volunteer in the community.
Plan an outing together: hike, bike, or drive.
Visit the beach.
Go dancing together.
Plan to attend brunch.
Get away to a secret location.
Whatever you decide, remember the importance of attuned engagement and the strengthening power it has.
For extra support or help making repairs in your relationship, make an appointment with Wasatch Family Therapy at 801.944.4555.
Everyone has an innate desire to be understood, to be heard, and to be validated. This is why close relationships can be so powerful.
They give us the opportunity to connect with others in ways that allow both individuals to be seen, respected, loved, and really feel known by the other person. But as many of us have experienced, even burning love can cool down, and even couples who once had a deep emotional engagement with one another may find themselves feeling disconnected and dissatisfied.
As a clinical therapist of more than 20 years, I’ve sat with many disheartened couples who are confused about where their love has gone and why they don’t feel the same way about each other that they once did. There are a great number of reasons why a marriage or romantic relationship could be in distress, and I won’t attempt to solve or remedy all of them in a single article. I will say that one thing I have seen work wonders in improving relationships and alleviating marital and personal hardship is empathy. I call it the “secret sauce” of a happy marriage. In fact, a Harvard research study from a few years ago showed that marriages were more successful when the man tried to demonstrate empathy in his interactions with his wife. Clearly, there’s something important and noteworthy about it.
So what is empathy exactly? It’s a willingness and ability to sit with another person, really listen, and reflect back your partner’s experience. Some individuals are naturally empathetic, whereas others need to work to develop it a bit more. Either way, it can be an invaluable trait to bring to a marriage. Here are some ways that you can use empathy to improve your relationships.
One of the first things to do is to listen to the emotional message in your partner’s pleas. This can be difficult because the words and the emotional message might not be the same thing. For example, if your spouse says things like, “you always come home late,” or “you never text me when you’re on your way,” it may be tempting to get defensive at the criticism.
However, I encourage you to listen for the deeper meaning in the words. It’s likely that what your partner is actually trying to communicate is “I miss you when you’re away and want to spend more time with you,” or “I’m scared that I’m not important to you.” Practice this communication skill of deciphering the underlying message, then figure out how best to respond to it.
Another good strategy for employing empathy in your relationships is to step out of your own emotional experience sometimes to fully listen to and seek to understand the other person’s. This is not easy. When a spouse is giving critical feedback, your gut reaction is likely one of trying to explain, defend, or rationalize, but these uncomfortable situations are when empathy is needed the most. Press the pause button on your own feelings, and as painful as it might be, try to see things from the opposite perspective.
And finally, show empathy by reflecting back your partner’s experience in your words. This is an aspect of active listening that can help to clarify any inadvertent miscommunication. Using phrases like “what I’m hearing you say is ____” or “you must be feeling _____” can help make sure you two are on the same page. The Harvard study showed that women were happier when their husbands were making their best effort to respond empathetically to their negative experiences. So if you’re not perfect, don’t stress! This is a skill to learn and to develop, and a marriage or close relationship is the perfect opportunity to practice.
Empathy is not necessarily a cure-all, but it is a crucial component of a healthy relationship (especially a long-lasting one like a marriage). In times of distress, practice these methods to strengthen your connections to the ones you love.
The Pixar movie Inside Out goes into the head of a little girl, Riley, who experiences her world through the lens of her emotions, each represented by a unique character, Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness. Joy is the leader of this group of individual emotions/characters, and works throughout the movie to protect Riley from sad emotions. Finally at the end of the movie, Joy learns that sadness is was pulls people in, and allows Riley to make the connection with her parents that comforts her and helps her begin to manage all the other emotions that are swirling around in her growing brain. That connection with her parents can also be called secure attachment.
Sadness is a primary emotion, and primary emotions are our vulnerable emotions. Sometimes we don’t feel safe being vulnerable, so we mask our primary emotions with secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are the reactions to our primary emotions that are designed to protect our vulnerabilities, so we sometimes use them to put up walls or push others away. This serves an important purpose in situations where we don’t feel safe, but can cause problems when something happens that causes us to feel unsafe with a romantic partner, a family member, or close friend.
If someone we care about does something that hurts us, we might feel sadness, or rejection, or fear, when we are hurting we work to protect ourselves and mask our sadness, rejection, or fear with anger, disgust, or frustration. We lash out to prevent the other person from hurting us more. This behavior starts us on a cycle of pain and protection.
If we can figure out a way to break the cycle, we can rebuild trust and emotional bonds, and regain that sense of comfort and attachment to important people in our life. Just like in the movie, the key to breaking the cycle is to become vulnerable, to express our feelings of sadness or fear. This can begin to change our interactions, and as our loved ones are able to respond to our primary emotions, we are able to be comforted.
The next time your partner expresses anger or frustration or disgust, try to imagine what primary emotion they are experiencing that is being masked, then respond with empathy to that primary emotion. You may be surprised what creating a safe space for them to be vulnerable does for your relationship!