In light of the upcoming school year, I wanted to offer this piece to you parents out there before we get into the next topics I promised you (i.e. Unconditional Love vs. Unconditional Positive Regard and, the other upcoming topic, How To Identify Pain.)
For children about to head off to middle school (and for their parents), there are a couple of salient things to keep in mind in order to help make the transition as smooth and as beneficial as possible.
As with any other transition in their lives, including the ones yet to come, such as high school and college, it is important to continue to emphasize an approach which maximizes opportunities for them to verbally express themselves and to be heard and then acknowledged when they do so. The more we encourage this, the less they will act out their unexpressed emotions in destructive ways.
By making them feel good about expressing their feelings, thoughts, conflicts, worries, hopes, etc., to you the parent or to other responsible adults, they are encouraged to continue to do so in the future.
Now, the hard part: how do we make them feel good about this, thus reinforcing this habit in them for the future?
Before we answer that, we must first look at what happens when we do NOT do this, in other words, when we shut them down by Commenting immediately about what it is they are telling us, rather than Listening first, then Validating them, then Asking open-ended questions about what they are saying.
Simply put, if we Comment first they will not get as much of an opportunity to explore with you, or, more importantly, within themselves, what it is that they are really feeling or trying to say.
This leads to a breakdown in deep trust and faith in the relationship and in your ability to help them handle whatever life throws at them (remember Emotional Credibility?)
They will also begin to disconnect within themselves as well, replacing potential self-knowledge with shame, guilt, fear, anger, or confusion, among other things. Over the years, these disconnects (both with you and within themselves) will grow, leading to the need to act out their unexpressed andunconscious emotions via unhealthy activities and choices including drugs, alcohol, sex, fighting, lying, cheating, procrastinating or not focusing on their goals, and other inappropriate and destructive behaviors. This is why it’s so important to help them to express and to know consciously what they are feeling and what they are trying to say to us.
As you may know by now, I call the approach described above LVACTM which stands for Listen, Validate, Ask, Comment.
This approach helps the child maximize his or her ability to learn about what it is he or she is feeling and what they are trying to say by minimizing our tendencies to interrupt their train of thought and their emotions with our anxiety-ridden Comments.
This is the way we make children feel good about talking to us about their feelings and it reinforces this habit in them for the future, which is necessary for the development of a robust, healthy, and adaptable self in adulthood.
In other words, as we are getting to know them better with the LVAC approach, they are getting to know themselves as well and they are therefore developing a solid, strong emotional core inside. What a gift we are giving them!
In the middle school and high school stages of pre-adolescence and adolescence there is a great need for the LVAC approach in order to promote self-knowledge and the integration of the self (as opposed to disconnects within themselves), so that there are fewer potentially destructive acting out behaviors as well as less vulnerability to peer pressures of all kinds.
You can think of it like this: the more healthy and robust and whole is the self, the less disconnected, empty, and fragile is the person, and the less they will have the need to act out in order to temporarily feel alive and whole.
In the end, the pre-teen and teen years don’t have to end up as them against us or them hating themselves or the world (rebels without a cause), all of which are wastes of emotional energy and growth opportunities which can take years to recover from.
Instead, the LVAC approach lets them pour their valuable energies during these formative years into the development of true self-knowledge and a cohesive sense of self, i.e., really feeling connected and really knowing what they like, don’t like, want, don’t want. It also allows them opportunities to truly engage themselves both in their work and in their relationships, thus eventually helping them to attain astronomically more satisfying, joyful, and less conflicted lives.
In short, it will help them to ‘fly’, which is what we parents want.
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.