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Talking With Your Kids About Their Problems

Being a teenager today definitely comes with a myriad of struggles -- and as a parent we often struggle just as much while trying to figure out how to support our teens along the way. A piece written by Jennifer Breheny Wallace in the Wall Street Journal, “Don’t Overdiscuss Your Teen’s Problems” (2.3.18), really made me think. The topic of processing problems with teens is a big part of my life. Based on the fact that (1) I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in working with kids and teens, (2) my personality is one who really likes to “process”, and (3) I am a mother of two between the ages of 16 and 21 years, I am big on talking through issues with kids. As a mother, I have a history of checking-in with my kids, often thinking about things they are dealing with, double-checking on their "state of mind", and then trying to figure out if - or when - I should step in and DO something, or if I need to LET IT GO and TRUST that they can handle things themselves.

Luckily there are times when I can allow my confidence in my kids to be in charge and trust them to handle things well on their own, but I will admit that my logical side does not always step in and help me let things go. Sometimes I ruminate, allowing my worrying mind to be in charge, and constantly rehashing topics with my kids, allowing/causing them to join my "over analysis". I am happy to say that learning Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other mindfulness techniques has helped to reduce the times when my worry instincts have taken over.

In her article, Ms. Wallace describes how experts in child psychology have researched the way children and teens talk through their problems with family and friends. Their research findings sound like common sense to most of us – that, for the most part, discussing problems with family and friends in moderation is positive. However, there can be negative results when things go too far.

An example of things going too far is “co-rumination” which is defined as: “excessively rehashing and speculating about problems with a parent or a friend”. This concept was developed by Dr. Amanda Rose, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, and was first published in the journal Child Development in 2002. In her study she found that co-rumination can “…amplify stress, impair judgment and increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression.”

Dr. Rose stated that when parents talk to their teens about problems and feelings it can aid in “building warmth and closeness in their relationships,” but that parents need to be careful to not carry this on so long that it turns into co-rumination. Dr. Rose described that “Co-rumination involves continuously repeating details or feelings about a situation, or discussing it again even when no new information is being introduced.” As parents, we can pay attention to these factors and help our teens determine when the discussion may be approaching rumination or co-rumination.

Dr. Rose recommends that if we notice our teens engaging in co-rumination, we might suggest a distraction or self-soothing technique to give our teens a break from thinking about the problem. In this way our teen may be able to deescalate, think more clearly and rationally, and return to a more balanced state. She also suggests teaching our teens about co-rumination and being clear about the reasons why we are trying to help them take a break from this discussion. “It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that I want you to feel good, rather than being stuck thinking about the negative.” She also advises helping our teens understand how they can teach their friends about co-rumination and the harm it can cause.

Another example of things going too far is how we as parents often rehash a past struggle our children had, or we ask questions in such a way as to highlight the negative.  This is explained in Ms. Wallace’s article by Dr. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of “Best Friends, Worst Enemies”He claims that repeatedly bringing up a difficult or painful topic after your child has worked through it can “keep a negative situation alive” and make it more difficult for them to recover successfully. Dr. Thompson also warned against “interviewing for pain” (e.g., “Did he tease you again?” or “You must feel terrible!”) as it focuses on and highlights the negative. Rather, it is best for parents to use active listening and to express empathy, “I hear that you are feeling excluded from friends at school and I am really sorry that you are going through that.” Dr. Thompson suggests that after properly expressing empathy we then steer the discussion to how the teen will empower themselves -- we help turn the focus to positive, empowered action by saying something like “So, how do you think you’re going to handle this?” We listen to their ideas and encourage them to develop a list of positive actions to take. They will feel less stuck, will have less reason to ruminate (and you will not be co-ruminating with them), and they will feel appropriately empowered.

On a final note…

Although Ms. Wallace’s article did not bring up the topic of mindfulness, I believe that it can be an effective tool to help decrease the likelihood that rumination will go unchecked. Using mindfulness as a parent can help us to identify when rumination or co-rumination is happening, and help us to model healthier behavior. By settling into non-judgmental self-awareness, we can help steer ourselves away from rumination and also teach our kids/teens to use healthy techniques for their own benefit as well.

For more information about Mindfulness and how it can be a helpful tool for parents, kids and teens, please be on the lookout for my next post. :-)

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