How to help your child manage distressing feelings

In my previous blog I touched on the notion of being good at feelings rather than aspiring to feel good. This concept has been championed by a leading Australian psychiatrist, Jon Jereidini, who in his article Let Children Cry outlined that both parents and healthcare professionals have become too interventionist and don’t trust a young person’s ability to experience and manage unpleasant feelings.

These unpleasant feelings represent emotions… anger, fear, sadness or shame…and are all something that we experience, yet naturally, many people want to intervene in some way when a young person is in a distressed state.

In addition, our modern day society (and education system) has a real bent towards the cognitive aspects of human psychology, and as a result, young people are often in tune with what they are thinking, but not in touch with how they are feeling. It’s like being taught to think from your neck up but ignore how your body feels…and this can lead to a disconnect between thinking and feeling – and this disconnection can result in being shut off from emotions and result in mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety symptoms.

Even when young people notice these unpleasant feelings, there can be a tendency to avoid this distress by using maladaptive coping strategies to try and escape the distress through the use of drugs, alcohol, pornography, screen time etc.

So, as a parent, what can you do to help when your child is distressed?

The first step in helping a distressed child or teenager is to be empathic (by being available and actively listening) by showing that you understand how they feel.

If they cannot identify how they feel…it’s important to help them recognise the body signals that can detect this (e.g. noticing jaw tightening, fist clenching, a raised voice, rapid heart-rate that might indicate anger).

At the same time it’s also important to notice and manage your own distress (by tolerating the anxiety experienced) and not intervening, being reactive or taking the distress away… by doing this you contain the emotion and model to the young person how to manage their own distress.

“So we must trust kids’ ability to survive strong feelings; make and protect the space for them to do that; and manage our own resultant anxiety. We need to give them the gift of being good at feelings. Of being able to make sense of uncomfortable but healthy sadness, anger, fear and shame, rather than the gift of feeling good, which is shallow and evaporates in the face of adversity.” Jon Jureidini

What can I do if I still have concerns?

However, if you find that this approach doesn’t work or you have ongoing concerns, it may be worthwhile to get some professional advice from a psychologist. At Attuned we offer both supportive counselling as well as psychotherapy, so if your child is experiencing ongoing distress you can make an appointment to discuss your concerns and get help from one of our practitioners.

John Pertl, Psychologist

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