As large portions of the global population use prudent forms of social distancing and self-isolation to manage the speed and rate of Covid-19 pandemic flu, our usual forms of communication are not available to us.
We talk face-to-face less. We see fewer facial expressions and subtle social cues. Texts and emails omit emotional context. And yet we are feeling more emotions than ever.
Anxiety, frustration, stress, uncertainty and doubt about the immediate and long-term future build up–in homes that are now combination school/workplace/restaurant/laundry facilities.
And on the other end of the country, grandma feels worried and out of touch. It’s a perfect recipe for short tempers and miscommunication once everyone does have time to get on Facetime.
We are all having feelings right now. And thanks to Erna Solbergs, the Prime Minister of Norway, we also have a role model for talking about those feelings honestly and respectfully with children (of all ages).
How to acknowledge feelings on the way to constructive action
“Because of the coronavirus, everyday life has become very different for both adults and children. Anyone who can stay home should do it all the time. Many children find this scary,” Solbergs said in a 30-minute press conference held exclusively for young reporters from Norway’s schools on March 17, 2020.
“I understand that well. It’s OK to get a little scared when so many big things happen at once. It’s OK to be a little scared to get infected by the coronavirus. But for the vast majority of us, the coronavirus is harmless.”
In just a few sentences, Prime Minister Solsbergs modeled the kind of communication people of all ages need and welcome during times of extraordinary challenge.
Acknowledge valid feelings, including “negative” or difficult ones. In a situation that is objectively frightening and out of their control, children (and adults as well) need to process emotions before they can act in a calm, logical, reasonable way.
Direct attention to specific actions they can take that are within their own span of control.
Contextualize and offer facts to help keep the threat in perspective.
Feelings are facts and must come out
When we face real (or imagined) genuine threats, the human brain triggers a natural fight-or-flight reaction–which is emotional, not rational. As any parent will attest, it doesn’t matter whether the monster in the closet is real or not; a 4-year-old is afraid. Listening with genuine acceptance when she says she is afraid (without judgment) is the first step to helping her. She won’t be able to listen to anything else until you hear her talk about her fears.
A technique called active listening (or “mirroring back” feelings through listening and responding without judgment or advice) helps to validate feelings by replying in a way that indicates you have understood the emotion being expressed–without blame or shame.
How might this sound when talking to a teen about current emotions?
“I hear you, Madison. You’re really sad about the spring musical being cancelled. That was a lot of effort and you put in so much work. You were looking forward to it more than anything. This is your senior year and it’s unfair all this is happening now. It must be very hard for you and your friends.”
Compassionate active listening can be done anywhere, anytime. It can be done face-to-face, using technology, even in writing.
Unexpressed emotions can create larger problems
Ironically, trying to “manage” others’ emotions by blocking or preventing their expression can create a backfire effect, also known as “digging in heels.”
Distressingly, it is easy to invalidate another person’s emotions without intending to . Urging others experiencing strong emotions to “be positive,” offering “encouragement,” changing the subject, or deflecting can be just as isolating and emotionally harmful as sarcasm, warning, or threatening.
And the emotional costs of emotional invalidation are real. A 2017 study of more than 500 patients with rheumatic diseases, for example, found that patients who experienced more invalidation from those around them also experienced more feelings of loneliness.
As we enter a global period of uncertain duration that will include more physical isolation, it will be even more important to remember to choose our words carefully.
Twelve ways people may invalidate each other’s difficult emotions
The late human development psychologist, Thomas Gordon, developed a list of twelve ways people can (consciously or unconsciously) invalidate others’ feelings when they communicate. The Dirty Dozen can unnecessarily contribute to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, resentments, and can even create and escalate (rather than resolve) conflicts.
I know you’re such a generous and kind person, Madison. Even though you’re sad about the cancelled play, I’m sure you’ll be kind and generous and loving and patient and quiet and cooperative while Mom and Dad work from home.
“It’s not that bad. It will be OK. Everything will work out in the end and we’ll emerge even better than before.”
“Here; watch some cat videos. Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I got lost on the way to Tibet wearing my great-grandfather’s WW1 parka?”
“What makes you think you have any idea what’s about to happen? Why are you so worried? What are you afraid of?”
“Your grandparents went to war; you’re being asked to sit on your sofa. You can do this.”
“I think you’re just upset right now because…”
“You shouldn’t complain. What you need to do is…”
“If you’ll stop sulking, we can have some of the special ice cream I’ve been saving for Friday night.”
“What is wrong with you? Don’t you know everybody is in the same boat?”
“Stop that sniveling right now. Quit complaining.”
“I am sick and tired of this. If you keep this up you’ll have something to cry about.”
“Well, Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed today. We’re all very sorry this sickness is personally inconveniencing you, Little Lady!”
We don’t all have to be the Prime Minister of Norway. We won’t always get everything exactly right. Nobody is perfect, and we will always make allowances for each other; that is what we do in difficult times as well as in good ones.
But we can also remember Erna Solsberg’s opening words to a room full of young people: “It’s OK to be a little scared when so many big things are all happening at once.”