Yes, these really do make things worse!
What’s your first instinct when someone you care about* is in distress? For those of us who are inclined to offer comfort and understanding, it’s probably a good idea to see if our actual responses match our intentions.
Ideally, you’ll be in a calm space—with time to listen and offer support when needed. But even in ideal circumstances, it can be easy to communicate unintended negative messages. So imagine if you’re feeling rushed, tired, or overwhelmed with your own issues. Or if the upset person has made what seems to be a really dumb mistake or ignored previous limits or advice you’d communicated!
Asking for emotional support requires a good bit of safety and certainty that our vulnerability won’t be further exploited, or our hurts compounded by a harsh, indifferent, or unkind reaction.
If people trust us enough to share an experience that has had an emotional impact on them, we usually do the most good when we can respond with empathy and support. Unfortunately, the following non-supportive or negative responses are so common and pervasive in our culture that avoiding them may prove to be a challenge. In fact, many of these responses are so familiar that they may actually appear to be helpful!
Yet each one of these patterns can create stress and mistrust in the relationship, effectively blocking the kinds of intimacy, caring, and communications most of us say we want. Each one has its own way of compounding the initial problem and can ultimately teach others that we are not a good person to seek out when they are in crisis or simply need help sorting something out.
Note: As you’ll note in the examples, this page was originally developed for parents and teachers to use to improve their communication skills with children who are having problems or emotional experiences and the examples are those I’ve witnessed or, sadly, used myself. I can personally vouch for significant improvements in my relationships with adults as I have learned to avoid responding with these all-too-familiar patterns.
*Even if it’s someone you don’t know, the reactions may be the same.
Responses that attempt to make the feelings go away
Dynamic: Attempts to protect children from their feelings, or to protect adults who are uncomfortable with children’s feelings.
Outcomes: Child’s self-doubt, confusion, mistrust of personal reality, need to “stuff” feelings. Message: Feelings are not OK.
“That’s nothing to be upset over.” “That doesn’t mean anything.” “So she called you a camel. Big deal!”
Discounts impact of an event or experience on the child; does not respect the validity or reality of his or her experience.
“She didn’t mean it.” “He didn’t know what he was saying.” “She must be having a bad day.” “Well, you know, her parents are going through a divorce.”
Rather than encouraging compassion (a valuable skill to teach in a non-conflict time) these responses are likewise disrespectful. They also carry the dangerous implication that as long as someone has an excuse, it’s OK for them to be thoughtless or mean (or worse).
“Oh, you don’t really feel that way.” “There’s no such thing as monsters.” “People shouldn’t hate their brothers.”
Just plain crazy-making; can confuse, distract; suggests that the child’s reality isn’t real.
“But you’re so good in your other subjects.” “Things could be worse.” “You’re lucky you have a brother/job/boyfriend.” “But his parents are so nice.” “Cheer up! This is the best time in your life!”
Confusing; disrespectful of the child’s reality and experience; denies the child the right to have a negative feeling. Note that this last example may be one of the most dangerous things we can say to a young person, especially if he or she is feeling depressed or self-destructive.
“Well I never had a problem with math.” “So now you know how I feel.” “Your problems really give me a headache.” “That wouldn’t bother me.”
Confuses ownership of the feeling or problem, shifting focus from the child to the adult. Disrespectful of child’s reality and experience. Confusing, distracting.
“You think you’ve got problems?” “I had it much worse when I was your age.” “That’s not as bad as what she said (or did) to me.” “We couldn’t even afford…”
Similar to distracting, this strategy also shifts the focus to the adult. Reminiscent of the old Monty Python “poverty” routine (“House? All we had was a shoebox, at the bottom of a lake…”), it denies the child the right to have a negative feeling if anything in his or her life is OK (or better than your situation). A real good one to let go.
Uses some type of substance (usually food) or activity (schoolwork, TV, chores, shoping) to distract children from their feelings. Can set up or reinforce an association between emotional discomfort and the need to get out of those feelings (numbing, taking the edge off) by taking or doing something.
Responses that make the child wrong for having feelings
Dynamic: Serves as outlet for adult’s anger, impatience, frustration, or feelings of inadequacy or shame triggered by child’s feelings. Likely to slip out when we’re tired or not taking care of ourselves, or when our previous warnings have been ignored.
Outcome: Shame/wrongness; defensiveness; feelings are not OK, nor are they safe to share.
“I told you this would happen!” “Don’t be a sissy.” “You’re so ungrateful!” “Nice boys don’t hate their sisters.” “You’re just too sensitive.” “How could you be so stupid!”
OK, now the kid has two problems and you’re one of them. While this reaction may be natural, it’s neither encouraging, accepting, nor validating, nor does it build communication or emotional safety. ’nuff said?
“What did you do to her?” “Well, if you had just studied!” “Of course it died! You never changed the water!” “That’s what happens when you overeat.”
The energy in this response is very similar to attacking and shaming (above), and like those responses, simply adds stress and defensiveness to the equation (and relationship).
“Why does that bother you?”
This response requires children to shift from the affect (feeling their feelings) to the cognitive (describing and explaining them). Note: These tasks engage and require access to different parts of the brain. It asks kids to defend their feelings, and suggests the need to convince the adult that the feelings are legitimate in order to get the adult’s approval or acceptance. Bottom line: It really doesn’t matter why something is bothering someone; it just matters that it does (and that we are willing to accept the reality of their emotional experience without understanding).
Responses that attempt to fix it or make it better
Dynamic: Makes adult responsible for child’s problems, allows adult to feel important. Suggests a mistrust for child’s ability to resolve problems. Also shifts out of affective experience (feeling a feeling) to cognitive process (solving a problem).
Outcome: Reduced sense of responsibility for problems (for child); lack of confidence in problem-solving abilities; helplessness; using feelings to get “rescued.” Dismisses feelings in favor of action (a separate process that tends to go better when not undertaken in the throes of intense feelings).
“Here. Let me see those math problems.” “OK. You can have the car again next weekend if you have a good enough excuse for breaking curfew.” “Look, I’ll talk to your teacher about it.” “That’s OK. I’ll pay those insurance premiums.”
Takes responsibility for problem instead of listening, hearing, reflecting, and holding other person accountable (which we can do and still be supportive, accepting, and encouraging). Does not suggest trust for children’s ability to solve problem and robs them of an opportunity to develop problem-solving skill or confidence in their ability to handle difficulties they encounter. Encourages dependence.
“Well, we never liked him much anyway. He was just a jerk.” “You’re so unlucky.” “I feel so sorry for you.” “Sucks to be you.”
There’s a difference between empathy and pity, and many attempts to console kids just ends up assigning them to the role of victim (or reinforces victim thinking). We can empathize and validate the reality of another person’s experience without suggesting that they are pitiable. (Focusing on the fact that someone disliked her job, for example, does not acknowledge the feelings that can come up when she got fired.) Very similar to dismissing or minimizing, these responses can leave people feeling misunderstood and blown off.
“Go study and you won’t feel so scared about that test.” “Tell her how she made you feel.” “You know if you cut your hair and lost five pounds you wouldn’t feel that way.” “Just ignore her.”
Shifts responsibility for problem from the child to the adult. Further, advice may not address actual problem, may be misinterpreted or misunderstood, and may create additional problems if followed. This aproach is often the one taken by adults who see the child’s vulnerability as an opportunity to assert their own agendas. It distracts from affect and suggests a certain mistrust for child’s ability to solve problem. Advice-giving robs kids of an opportunity to develop problem-solving skill or confidence in their ability to handle difficulties they encounter. This strategy also encourages dependence, blame, and learned helplessness. Here are some alternatives to advice-giving.
To become more responsive and supportive—not only in relationships with children, but with adults, as well—start paying attention to the responses you rely on most frequently. Avoiding these non-supportive patterns, common though they may be, can make an enormous difference in the trust and connection you have with others. Links to alternatives to the above responses are listed below.
Excerpted and adapted from The Win-Win Classroom, by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA. Similar issues are addressed in Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, as well as Parents, Teens & Boundaries, both by Dr. Jane Bluestein © Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL.
© 1990, 1999, 2003, 2008, 2013, Dr. Jane Bluestein
An Alternative to Advice-Giving
Questions, Not Answers
Magic Sentences for Effective Communication
The Power of Discouragement
What’s Wrong with I-Messages?
Bearing Witness: Support for Children in Crisis
Order Dr. Bluestein’s articles: “Ask—Don’t Tell” and “Being a Supportive Listener.”
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