The blog

Words That Work!

Teenagers become emotionally dysregulated, and it can be very challenging to facilitate problem-solving or any other kind of rational discussion in these moments. Our attempts to calm the teen down by offering solutions and suggesting a more reasonable approach often backfires, resulting in more intensity and poor choices. What can we do?

First, let’s look at why this is happening. When emotions intensify beyond a certain point, the capacity for reasonable thought diminishes. Most of us can identify with the experience of saying or doing something when we are emotionally dysregulated that we later regret or that is inconsistent with our values. Teens may be even more vulnerable to this phenomenon given the impact of hormones, ongoing brain development, and relative inexperience. To get to a place of rational thought, we must first regulate the nervous system to bring back the cognitive ability that is suppressed by emotionality. Luckily, we have a skill for this!

Validation.

Validation is the special sauce that soothes the overactive emotional system and restores order. It takes a few minutes, yes, and it leads to problem solving when we apply it. It also models a powerful skill for young people so they can do it themselves with time. The skill helps settle down an overactive nervous system much the way a parent’s soothing words comfort a distressed infant.

How does it work?

While often counterintuitive, validation is actually very simple. Look for how whatever behavior you are seeing in front of you makes sense and say it out loud. Let’s consider a few examples:

Teen: “I hate homework!”

Normal response: “Well, you have to do it, your grade depends on it”

Validating response: “Yes, homework is a pain, I didn’t like it either when I was a student.”

Or

Teen: “I’m a loser, no one likes me”

Normal response: “You’re a wonderful kid, I love you”

Validating response: “It’s really painful to have those kinds of thoughts, how can I be helpful?”

Or

Teen: (slams phone on table when you tell them to put it away)

Normal response: “Don’t slam the phone on the table”

Validating response: “I get upset too when I have to do things I don’t want to…”

Why not jump straight to the solution? Because when we are emotionally aroused, our ability to think logically and problem solve is impacted, and solutions are more likely to be rejected. Validation reduces emotionality, so that the teen’s ability to problem solve can be accessed. Our responsibility is to provide the validation until the young person learns to validate themselves. When emotion goes down, teens are likely to be able to solve their problem themselves or ask for help.

Deceptively simple.

What makes this hard is our own emotional arousal. We want to jump straight to the end game to reduce emotions all around. If only this worked. Sitting with the sadness, worry, pain, and other unpleasant emotions while the teen in front of you reregulates is hard. And by doing this, we are modeling exactly what we want the teen to learn – managing uncomfortable emotions effectively.

Give it a try!

~Britt Rathbone