As a therapist I see many kids and teens who experience extreme emotions. Some have mental health conditions such as depression or another mood disorder, and some do not. In either case, many parents want to know, “What causes my child to feel so sad, lonely, depleted, apathetic, or angry?!” and some parents even go on to add, “I give her everything. She has a great life. There is no reason for her to feel this way.” (Yes, the “I give her everything” statement is the one I hear most often.)
Questions like the previously mentioned are my cue to meet that parent’s fears and pain by gently explaining some of the theories of the causes of mood disturbances. Basically, there are lots of fancy names for the theories, but the causes are typically a number of the following factors working in combination:
1. Biological factors: neurotransmitters, hormones, neurological differences, etc
2. Environmental stresses: Hopeless, painful, overwhelming, and lonely scenarios and an invalidating environment
3. Individual temperament: the child’s ways of thinking, threshold of tolerance for emotional discomfort, etc.
Nowhere in that explanation does it imply that a child’s depression is caused by its parents not giving it enough.
I often see extreme emotions and/or mood disorders as being a result of a combination of all three of the causes listed above.
So how are each of these causes addressed? If necessary, a pediatric psychiatrist or family physician may address the biological components of extreme moods and behaviors. An individual therapist can work with the child to increase her personal distress tolerance and coping skills and shift her ways of thinking to be less problematic. And parents can work to address environmental factors. This is why parental consultation and often family therapy is very helpful for the child’s emotional well-being.
But what is the most important thing that a parent can do for a highly emotional child?
The best way for parents to address environmental factors is to create what is called a “validating environment.” This means hearing and honoring the perspective of the child and who the child is even when the perspectives of the child are not pleasant, are hard to hear, or are inconsistent with what the parents want. In other words, letting the child know that her feelings are understandable, and that it’s okay to be yourself.
Some examples of validation vs. invalidation are as follows:
1. Invalidation: “Just relax. It’s not that bad.”
Validation: “I can see how that would be upsetting.”
2. Invalidation: “You didn’t really mean that.”
Validation: “Tell me more about that.”
3. Invalidation: “Stop getting so angry.”
Validation: “It’s okay to feel angry, and I can see why you’d be angry, but it’s not okay to hit the wall.”
4. Invalidation: “How could you be so selfish!?”
Validation: “I could see how you would be compelled to do that, but we need to talk about a way to make everyone happy, not just you.”
Often barriers which prevent validating environments occur because of one of these 3 reasons:
1. Parents really don’t relate to their child being so upset.
They legitimately cannot understand why or how a child could be so emotional, and commonly get annoyed or dismissive with the child’s feelings. In this case, it is sometimes helpful to think of your child as a “highly sensitive person” (See “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elaine Aron) instead of flawed and problematic. Think about what it must be like to go through life as such a highly sensitive person and begin to appreciate your child for who it is.
2. Parents’ own anxieties are triggered when their child has difficult or extreme emotions.
Sometimes their anger or fears of inadequacy are triggered when they are unable to “cure” or “change” their child, so they try to talk the child out of their feelings, deny the reality of the child’s perspective, or ignore the child’s feelings.
3. The parents’ sense of “right and wrong” conflict with who the child is.
Sometimes parents have learned that some very basic and healthy aspects of human nature are “wrong.” Often a child’s anger or sadness or pride or selfish impulse is seen with invalidation or disgust instead of being seen as natural and making sense given the situation and human nature. Kids in shame-filled, overly-controlled, or strictly dogmatic environments are often given messages that their anger, emptiness, unhappiness, sadness, sexuality, or pride are “wrong”.
So why am I making such a big deal about the importance of creating a validating environment for a kid? Because one in five kids are estimated to be highly sensitive, and emotional sensitivity plus invalidating environment is the perfect recipe for a child to end up on my therapy couch. And in a weird way, less business for me is a good thing for the world.
For more information on the importance of validating children, check out the book “The Power of Validation” by Karyn D. Hall.
Featured photo credit: grietgriet via mrg.bz
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