As a parent, friend, or supportive professional in a child’s life, we may want to be that safe harbor in the storm, that refuge when the going gets rough. But what kind of help really helps? Consider for a moment how quickly we may focus on things we can do while glossing over a child’s emotions, perhaps because it may just be too awkward to talk about feelings. Might we be worried that if there is nothing we can do to solve the problem, that we would have to sit with the discomfort of simply witnessing difficult feelings? Might we avoid these emotional conversations because we don’t know what to say or because these conversations might bring up difficult feelings for us?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that we don’t want to help. Our intention may be to ease the pain, but in skipping past emotions, we take away the opportunity for young people to process their feelings in the moment. Kids may learn the importance of working through feelings from school social-emotional curricula, but without the opportunity to actually express and work through these feelings on an ongoing basis, SEL becomes just another academic subject.
Encouraging young people of all ages to openly express their thoughts and feelings teaches them authenticity—the art of being ‘real.’ This was the greatest gift I learned from my journey with brain cancer as a young adult. At the time, I yearned for someone I could relate to—someone that could understand my experience so I would not feel so alone. But what I realized was that I just couldn’t wait for someone else to start the emotional conversation that could connect us. It was up to me to put myself “out there” by both showing and communicating my feelings. If I didn’t put myself out there, I thought, how could I expect others to connect with me authentically?
Although it is our responsibility to be real with others, equally important is our responsibility to hold that authentic place for others. The art of listening may mean we have to bite our tongue rather than jumping in with solutions, or be steadfast when we feel ourselves retreating from a difficult conversation. It may mean we have to go one step deeper with someone. This is not intrusive; it is caring. It may mean helping kids and teens put words to their mass of emotions. And it may mean shedding a tear yourself as you take on the intensity of someone’s emotional experience.
My best advice is to believe in the ability of kids and teens to go deep, while at the same time respecting the pace these young people set for emotional conversation. Trust that young people can regulate how much and when they are ready to share and let them take the lead.
Building trust with kids and teens means that you also have the responsibility to be honest and transparent yourself. Admit to your own vulnerabilities by both showing your authentic emotions as well as admitting when you don’t have all the answers. If you make a mistake in what you say or what you do, own up to it. Young people will appreciate it. By being real yourself, you are modeling for the young people how they can be real too.
Young people feel when you’re hiding your true self. And it teaches them to hide who they are as well. Rather than continuing this cycle of inauthenticity, you can break it. By choosing to be real with the people in your life – no matter their age! – you can create an authentic space for connection and healing.